Paul Prather: Free shoes and hot dogs won't fix poverty, but keep giving them away

Contributing columnistMay 24, 2014 

Jesus said this about the economically disadvantaged: "The poor you have with you always."

I've come to believe he was right about that, as about most things.

Poverty is not going away.

Two events coincided to remind me of this unfortunate truth.

The first was the 50th anniversary of the federal government's War on Poverty. I'm a proponent of government anti-poverty programs, by the way.

I personally know any number of people who've been helped by food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, education grants and the like, who without such aid might would have remained hungry, sick, untutored and unemployable. The government helped them rise up and out to better lives. God bless the U.S.A.

But I also know a lot of people who've received the same benefits without discernible effect, except for a life-long reliance on the dole.

Government programs, then, like the people they serve, are a mixed bag. They may help, but they don't perform miracles.

The second event took place on a Wednesday night at the small church I lead. Our youth group meets on Wednesdays. The adult volunteers who run it are saints.

Our entire congregation is about 80 people, including all ages.

But on Wednesday evenings, the youth group alone swells to 40-plus, about three-fourths of them kids who don't attend our church otherwise.

They ride our bus from various corners of the county. As nearly as I can tell, our young visitors, some still in grade school, come mainly for the free supper we offer. They eat as if they haven't seen a hot meal for days. These children are unkempt. And hyperactive. And as starved for attention as for food.

On the recent Wednesday I mentioned, one little kid gobbled down seven hotdogs, a volunteer worker said.

Seven hotdogs. That's a child who's starving.

Months back, our workers spotted another boy whose feet were sticking out the bottoms of his sneakers. He had shoe tops; the soles were gone and his feet rubbed the ground.

So the workers bought him a new pair of shoes.

He came back the next week wearing the same run-down shoe tops. After some questioning, he admitted his grandmother had sold his new shoes.

We've run into that same problem with bikes. My late father started a charity at our church to give away bicycles to poor kids at Christmas.

One complication: the same kids kept returning for bicycles every year. Their parents were selling the bikes.

It'll break your heart, working with the poor. And make you furious.

I've participated in these kinds of charitable attempts for decades. Honestly, I can't tell we've made an iota of progress. It's like spitting into the ocean.

Liberals sometimes argue that government programs — if we just had more of them — could more-or-less end poverty.

I've watched the government offer program after program. As I said, I've seen the programs accomplish great good for some, yet accomplish nothing for others, except to help them exploit the system.

Conservatives say helping the poor isn't the government's job; that's for churches and charities. Sometimes they even argue we should all just let the hungry stay hungry; if they get emaciated enough, they'll get off their lazy bottoms and get jobs.

Well, I'm here to tell you, there aren't enough resources in all our churches put together to dent this problem.

And you've got to be incredibly cruel — you shouldn't dare provoke God by calling yourself a Christian — if you're willing to stuff your hands in your pockets and walk away from a kid who's shivering in the snow in his sock feet.

Whether you're liberal or conservative, if you think you've figured out how to stop poverty, I humbly submit that you're out of your ever-loving gourd.

The poor we have with us always.

Chronic poverty stems not from one problem, but from an over-lapping plethora of them, including physical disability, mental illness, ignorance, family dysfunction, violence, drug addiction, despair, self-loathing, isolation, bigotry, inferior healthcare.

Not every poor person suffers from all those issues, but all suffer from several of them. You address a problem — and discover four more problems lurking behind it.

Jesus and the early Christians understood what we don't, that a certain amount of poverty is inevitable. It's an intractable tragedy, the result of living in a flawed world.

That's why they warned us over and again to care for the less fortunate. They knew it would be a job that was frustrating and endless and heartbreaking.

They knew we'd likely throw up our hands in despair, or else start blaming everyone in sight, from our political opponents to the starving waifs themselves.

Their implicit message was: "You can't fix poverty, yet you must try. Always be generous as a country and a church and an individual. Remember: inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to the Lord."

So you just keep giving, keep loving, keep caring with your pocketbook and your prayers — knowing you're bound to fail. You stay at it because it because it's the right thing to do. It's what St. James called "pure and undefiled religion."

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at

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