POVERTY -- how to measure it -- has been making headlines. The Census Bureau recently reported and President Clinton proudly celebrated the fact that in 1998 the number of poor Americans fell by 1.1 million.
Almost as regular as the Census Bureau's annual poverty report is the claim by Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, that the notion of widespread American poverty is just mythical nonsense that legitimizes disastrous government antipoverty programs.
The Census Bureau, on the other hand, thinks that the current definition ($16,660 for a family of four) underestimates the extent of poverty. Mr. Rector ignores some basic facts. During the "war on poverty" (1964-73), the poverty level dropped from 19 percent to 11 percent. Then the economy fell into recession, and President Reagan cut welfare benefits and increased the effective tax rate for the poorest 20 percent from 8.1 to 10.4 percent. From 1979 to 1983, the child poverty rate climbed from 16.4 percent to 22.3 percent. Contrary to Mr. Rector, many government programs -- the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Women Infants and Children nutrition program and food stamps -- reduce poverty. Without Social Security today, 50 percent of all our seniors would be poor. Thanks to Social Security, less than 10 percent are.
Anyone who thinks American poverty is not a problem should try living on $16,660 a year for a family of four: $525 for a two-bedroom apartment; $47 a week for transportation; $385 a person for clothes. Per year! About a dollar a meal per person for food. Forty dollars a month for utilities, and $788 a year for Social Security taxes. Nothing for doctor, dentist, vacation or special celebrations.
About 34.5 million Americans fall at or below this poverty level. Forty percent have less than half of that. This season is a good time to ask ourselves whether this situation is good enough for the richest nation in history.
Perhaps the more important question is not about the number of poor Americans but the generosity of most Americans. The tough question is: Do middle-class Americans care? Not if the giving patterns of church members are any indication.
About 86 percent of the American people claim to be Christians, and 40 to 45 percent attend church once a week. But the per capita giving of church members has dropped virtually every year since 1968 -- from a little less than 3.14 percent to less than 2.4 percent of their income. Our income has grown dramatically in the past 30 years, but our giving has steadily declined.
Two implications are important. First, the libertarian notion that our churches and synagogues can replace most government anti-poverty programs is silly.
If the 325,000 churches, mosques and synagogues in the United States tried to take over the basic anti-poverty programs, plus the federal share of Medicaid, every single congregation would need to add $612,000 to its budget every year.
Since the median annual budget of all congregations is about $55,000, that would be a bit of a stretch. Second, there are literally hundreds of biblical texts that talk about the way God -- and God's faithful people -- care about the poor. Proverbs 19: 17 is typical: "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord." Do Christians and Jews really believe their sacred Scriptures?
There is some good news. A new holistic vision is emerging on how to overcome widespread poverty. From presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, there is growing agreement that a civil society, especially faith-based groups, must play a much larger role. At the same time, businesses must create jobs, and government must guarantee that those who work responsibly full-time receive a livable family income, can afford health insurance, and enjoy quality education for their children.
A historic convergence of liberal and conservative approaches may be possible in the next decade. But a lasting solution will require greater generosity: vastly expanded private giving to effective faith-based social programs; vastly more volunteer mentors, and, yes, some expansion of effective government programs. We know what to do, but do enough people care enough to do it?
One thing is painfully obvious: Now that we've reached 2000, all people of goodwill should resolve to end the scandal of widespread poverty in the richest nation in human history.
Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, wrote this for the Knight-Ridder News Service.