We Need to Rethink Our Approach to Poverty in America

Recently, St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Acton Institute teamed up to offer a conference on Poverty in the United States.  The recordings of the sessions are available on Ancient Faith Radio and I am presently working my way through them.  I have not listened to all of them yet so I am sure I will be posting more as time rolls on.

In the Key note, Dr. Jay Richards, who I met last year at Acton University in Grand Rapids, laid out the plan for the conference.  What I have been able to glean thus far is we need a new way of thinking about poverty because the old one is just not working.  What is the best way to solve the problem of poverty, create wealth that is the best way.  How we do that is the question.

Unlike most people who like to weigh in on poverty, I work with a population that is actually poor.  I live in a community that one would not call wealthy, where the poverty rate continues to grow.  There are all sorts of people who are willing to place the blame on this group or that group, but no one seems to be willing to have the difficult discussion about the root cause of all of this.

When you study poverty, and the effects of it, once quickly realizes that it is usually the cause of most of the other problems that we face.  The current welfare system, although necessary, is broken and all it does is enslave people to the system.  There is no incentive to get off the system, but rather than have a discussion about that we sit back and complain about what people are buying with their food stamps.  Rather than try and figure out how to get folks off of the system, we keep reforming the system meanwhile we enslave another generation.

This may sound cruel but it is true.  I sit with people all the time who are victims of the system and listen to their stories.  Some time back there was a discussion about poverty and welfare going around on social media.  I challenged those who were holding the line that people on welfare just need to work, to come to our community meal and talk with the folks who come.  I was not surprised when not one of them came, not one of them came to talk to the people they love to scorn for political points.  Both sides use the poor for their own political gain, meanwhile the gap between the groups continues to grow.

What we need is a conversation where we are not afraid to talk.  The problem today is if we talk about getting people off of the system we are seen to be insensitive and in some cases racists, this is not helpful.  We need a new way of looking at poverty and a new way of finding a solution and the Church needs to play a large role in that.

In 369 St. Basil the Great was a newly ordained priest in Cappadocia.  The situation in Cappadocia was grim.  The city and the surrounding area had been hard hit by famine as all of the crops had dried up.  St. Basil developed a vision for a new community based on simplicity of life and what he called an engaged monasticism.  St. Basil’s idea was simple, people need to help people.  He had a vision where the poor could come and receive medical care, food, clothing, and rest.  This would be a place to truly live the Gospel of loving of one’s neighbor.

The monks would practice trades such as carpentry and blacksmithing, but would also practice the medical and healing arts.  There would be a worship space, but the Gospel would be preached in action not just in words.  The hope would be that it would be a self-sustaining ministry for all.

Now, I am not saying this is the answer but what I am saying is that we need to recapture the vision of St. Basil and make it new for the 21st century.  The Church certainly is not is a position to take over what the government has been doing, although I believe the Church shirked it’s responsibility and that is why the government had to step in.  How many of our churches have programs for those in our own community that are less fortunate than us?  How many of our clergy live like kings and drive big fancy cars and live in big houses, while the people they have been given to serve, live in poverty?  How many festivals do we have where the money is used to build larger and larger temples while very little, if anything, goes to help those in their own community?  This is what I mean when I say we need a new way of thinking about poverty and we cannot be afraid to have the conversation.

I have much more to learn and much more to think about and maybe in the end, the current system will be the best but we have to have the conversation.  We need all voices to be heard and listened too and I believe the Church can be the place where this conversation takes place.  We just need to be willing to start the conversation.


  1. Forgive me Fr. Peter,
    A small correction on your paper above.
    In 369, when the great drought caused unprecedented famine in all “Cappadocia” not Constantinople, Basil called upon the rich to help the poor and he himself organized assistance for the starving. At this time, he composed his homilies: God is Not the Cause of Evil, Against theRich (two sermons) and During times of Starvation and Drought.

  2. Father – the real answer to the “poverty problem” is for employers to give their employees a decent wage. How many people can really survive on what they make at the service/retail industries they work at without any outside help. I blame “big government” for subsidizing companies who’ve decided not to offer things like healthcare or a decent wage to their employees. Industries and companies who in turn, demonize them.

    You speak of priests with fancy cars and opulent lifestyles – don’t they have the right – as do you – to be rewarded for success? I certainly feel that they do – why do we have two sets of rules in this country- one for the non profit and another for the for profit field. You deserve to be paid very well if you are able to do things like – create a strong loving community that supports each other in an atomistic selfish world – and which offers it’s services to the greater community around it – whatever those services may be – isn’t that more valuable than producing things that might not be so good for society whom we give all credence and wealth to?

    Why are non-profits and priests second class citizens? How are we going to attract the best if we offer the least in terms of taking care of families.

    here’s a video for you

    tell me what you think – focus on the guy’s business sense –


    1. I have to disagree with you on a few points.

      First, your use of the term non profit is out of place. That term is a term placed on the church by the government. The Church is not another non profit the Church is the Church and by virtue of that, has a whole different standard, but yes I have an issue with heads of non profits making large sums of money.

      Second, yes a priest should be rewarded but your assumption is that money is the only reward. It is my job to build up the community, should I be paid a fair living wage, yes, I have to live after all, but my reward is not money, that reduces the role of the priest to just another guy, that is not my job. And we all knew that Church work was not going to pay well and that it was going to be a struggle, and struggle my friend is good.

      The real answer to poverty lies in two places, one wealth creation and the other is treating human beings they way they should be created and that is as living Icons of Christ, we cannot forget the human element in the economy. Wealth creation is vitally important in the relief of poverty, again, it is not just about money.

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