What Poverty in the United States Looks Like & How to Fix It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is poverty in the United States like? How can we solve the poverty issue in the U.S.?

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors of When Helping Hurts, point out that churches are often best equipped to help the poor in their own communities. While missions to alleviate poverty in developing nations may get more press, there are still poor communities in America.

Let’s look at a clear picture of what poverty looks like in the contemporary United States.

Components of Local Poverty

Corbett and Fikkert identify five broken systems that trap the poor in poverty in the United States.

Inadequate Employment Opportunities: The authors observe that job opportunities in the US for people without special skills are limited, and many low-skilled jobs don’t pay enough to live on. They attribute this partially to the shift from manufacturing to a service economy, noting that workers on an assembly line typically earn more than unskilled service workers, such as grocery checkers.

Lack of Education: Low quality of public education is often a persistent problem in poorer communities. Perhaps this is because most public schools depend on local tax levies for their funding, and thus schools in poorer communities have less funding. Also, when the quality of education is poor, members of the community tend to place less value on it, and communities that don’t value education aren’t likely to invest in improving it.

Financial Instability: Poor people are particularly vulnerable to recessions or other economic instabilities because any financial setback (such as losing a job) can be devastating to people who have no savings to draw from, and it’s challenging for poor people to accumulate savings. 

Lack of Affordable Housing: Almost half of low-income households in the US spend more than half of their income on housing. This financial burden amplifies their other financial woes.

Lack of Affordable Healthcare: The authors also cite the high cost of healthcare in the US as a systemic problem, especially for the poor. They say more than a third of poor people in the US forgo medical treatment that they need because they cannot afford health insurance, nor can they afford to pay for treatment out of pocket.

Solutions in the U.S.

The solutions that Corbett and Fikkert present for poverty alleviation in the United States focus primarily on helping the poor improve their employment prospects and financial security. This is because, while they affirm that unemployment, education, finance, housing, and healthcare are all significant problems for the American poor, they believe that most churches are better positioned to help in these areas than they are to solve the problems with the educational system, the housing market, or the cost of healthcare.

They outline three specific intervention tactics for your church to consider as you contemplate ways to help the poor in your area: job preparation, financial education, and opportunities for wealth accumulation. Let’s discuss each in turn.

Job Preparation

According to Corbett and Fikkert, one of the most effective interventions churches can offer is job preparedness programs, which serve to address the poor’s lack of education and training. They advise that an effective job preparedness program has several components: 

First, it should train participants in soft skills such as teamwork and problem-solving from a biblical viewpoint. Second, it should address important job preparation skills like work ethic, punctuality, and appropriate dress.

Third, there should be a group of mentors who engage with participants one-on-one to encourage them, get to know them, and help them solve problems as they come up. Ideally, your mentoring team should be large enough that each participant can meet alternately with about five different mentors. This spreads out the mentoring workload so that individual mentors are less likely to feel overwhelmed. 

(Shortform note: Typically, church members helping with a poverty alleviation program are volunteers, not paid employees of the church. Based on other sources, ideally you should structure your program so that each volunteer’s time commitment is about 100 hours per year. In Give and Take, Adam Grant points out that people who volunteer between 100 and 800 hours of their time per year get the most satisfaction from their volunteer work. He also reports that volunteering up to 100 hours per year correlates with a measurable improvement in health, but the improvement plateaus above 100 hours.)

Pairing participants with multiple mentors also allows them to network with more people, which opens up more job opportunities: There’s a greater likelihood that one of a participant’s mentors knows someone who knows of a job opening that’s a good fit for the participant if the participant has several mentors than if he just has one. 

Fourth, while your church may not have the resources to teach “hard” (technical) skills like welding or computer programming, you can help the poor pursue further education at vocational schools and community colleges. There they can learn “hard” skills and obtain degrees or certificates that will improve their employment options.

Finally, try to get local businesses to agree to interview everyone who graduates from your job preparedness program. This will improve their chances of job placement.

Financial Education

Corbett and Fikkert maintain that another effective intervention churches can offer is financial education. This enables the poor to make the best use of their limited financial resources by helping them develop better financial management skills. The authors recommend that financial education programs follow several guidelines.

First, programs should cover topics like Christian stewardship, budgeting, saving, debt reduction, taxes, banking, and managing credit, among others. Second, when choosing a curriculum for the program, take into consideration the target population’s needs, education level, and cultural background. 

Third, regardless of the specific curriculum, instructors should teach content from a biblical perspective that’s sensitive to the particular culture of the population. Finally, a team of mentors should foster long-term development by building relationships with participants and holding them accountable.

In addition to these guidelines, Corbett and Fikkert say that churches can guide participants in leveraging the US government’s earned-income tax credit (EITC) to mitigate low income, if capable of doing so. They explain that although it’s the largest federal program providing assistance to low-income working families, 15–25% of those who qualify either don’t know it exists or don’t know how to access it.

(Shortform note: More detailed information on the EITC, who qualifies for it, and how to claim it is available from the IRS. Additionally, the IRS advises that people who qualify for the EITC may also qualify for other tax credits, such as the child and dependent care tax credit, the child tax credit, and the education tax credit. These tax credits provide tax relief to lessen the financial burden of raising children and pursuing higher education, respectively.) 

Opportunities for Wealth Accumulation

A final way that Corbett and Fikkert suggest churches can address the issues of poverty in the United States is by designing interventions that target wealth accumulation. The purpose of this type of intervention is to offer the poor a better chance to save and grow their money. They say that according to a four and half year study, the poor are capable of—and successful at—saving enough to build wealth when given the opportunity.

Corbett and Fikkert say that one proven way to help the poor accumulate wealth is through Individual Development Account (IDA) programs, which help low-income individuals save toward an asset to increase their financial independence. They recommend that churches follow the guidelines of existing models:

First, have a savings-match policy where your church’s IDA matches the monthly savings of participants (which could be anywhere from a 1-1 to 3-1 ratio). These funds would come from the church itself, donations, foundations, and financial institutions that support IDA programs, or in some cases government programs.

Second, have participants save money for a specified purpose, such as continuing their education or acquiring a house or car. Once their goal has been reached, release the funds directly to the vendor to ensure that the participant uses the savings as intended.

Finally, offer financial education alongside the savings program. If possible or applicable, include training related to managing the specific assets that participants are saving for.

What Poverty in the United States Looks Like & How to Fix It

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  • How many Christian church missions actually do more harm than good
  • A look into the true nature and causes of poverty
  • Suggestions for how to help the poor more effectively

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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