Who Are the Poor Today?

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From A Commentary on James

James’s letter refers to the poor as widows, orphans, the hungry, unpaid harvesters, and probably the disabled and sick. They are men and women, adults and children. Some studies of ancient Greco-Roman times estimate that 25–28 percent of the population were “truly poor” and 30–40 percent were subsistence-level, unskilled workers, which means that 55–68 percent of first-century society struggled in poverty.[1] Today the “poor” is a relative term. In 2015, in the United States, the Census Bureau considered as “poor” a single individual who earned yearly under $12,331 (over 65 it was only $11,367), a single parent with one child earning $16,337 or less, and a family of two adults and two children with an income of $24,339 or less. Thirty-three percent of the poor are children. The United States Census Bureau considered 13.5 percent “poor” in 2015.[2] Many of these poor are minorities: 26.6 percent Hispanics, 27.4 percent blacks, 12.1 percent Asians, and 9.9 percent non-Hispanic whites.[3] Thus, a single “poor” individual in the United States earned $34 or less per day and $1,028 or less per month. However, if we were to take a plane to the Dominican Republic, the land of my birth, the “poor”—more than a third of the island—earn less than $1.25 a day, especially those who live in rural areas. As a matter of fact, almost one half of the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day and 80 percent live on less than $10 a day.[4] The poor in the United States living on $34 a day have a better income than 80 percent of the rest of the world’s “poor.” In other words, the poor are not a minority in today’s world but a majority. We should ask: Are they a part of our own church? How many churches in the United States (and elsewhere) have rich and poor worshiping together? In 2009, my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), had 5.2 percent of members who earned less than $10,000 and 11.8 percent of members who earned between $10,000 and $24,999 a year (total 17 percent).[5]

The church growth movement originally discouraged Christians from including people of a variety of economic classes and ethnicities in new church plants because that would slow church growth. For instance, Donald McGavran explains: “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” Unbelievers prefer to join churches whose members have the same “color, stature, income, cleanliness, and education.” Thus, new churches should normally be “homogeneous units of a society.”[6] These probably do achieve rapid growth, but what are the ramifications for such a strategy? In James 2:2–4, the congregants are encouraged not to give special seating to the rich and inferior seating to the poor. But in such a church growth strategy, which mirrors the economic and racial divisions of the church, the poor will not even be included in the local middle-class church. As I heard one white lay leader ask a visiting black family in a New Jersey church many years ago, “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable in one of your own churches?” Today, we might say or imply the same thing to the poor in a middle- or upper-class church.

Despite the pressure by advocates of the homogeneous church growth movement to plant only a homogeneous church, our new church fellowship insisted on creating a congregation where the middle class and poor could worship together. Although very difficult to integrate our diverse perspectives, we ended up with a group of people where almost half earned less than $10,000 a year and 64 percent earned less than $24,999 a year.[7] While we may not have grown quickly, Christians of different economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds learned to worship God together.

So who are the poor in our church? They are not a faceless class, an “issue” for the wealthy to discuss, but individual, unique people with self-respect and dignity. Most are a great encouragement to the rest of us. Rosa[8] is the daughter of a married Latin American ambassador and his mistress. Rosa is a woman of no country because her United States passport was taken from her, even though she never lived in the land of her father. But when she worships, she enlivens the congregation with her tambourine and shouts of enthusiasm. Sheila, a widow, is a deacon of the church who sleeps overnight with children who have been removed from their homes for overactive behavior. She saves her money, assisted by the deacon’s fund, to be able to feed the whole church once a month. Harry is another deacon who goes out into the marshes to pick up decorative flowers for florists to make Christmas wreaths, deeply scratching his hands and arms in the process. He, along with his wife, directs our prayer outreach. Beverly works as a nurse’s aide. When we did not have enough food for a church meal, she went home and gathered her own donations given to her from the local food bank and cooked so much food that we had lots to give away to another church meeting in our building. Bob is a man who had never been allowed to go outside without an escort because of mental issues. Now he is so happy to come by himself that he claps at the end of almost every praise and worship session in appreciation. One of our pastors brings a carload of low-income children to the church. Carla stays on the street because she insists on bringing her alcoholic male friend into the Young Women’s Christian Association housing, even though that is not allowed. She also has mental health and possibly substance-abuse issues herself. Some of our “poor” are temporarily so because they study at local colleges and seminaries.

What is my point? Some of the poor Christians who attend our church are indeed “rich in faith and heirs” of God’s reign. We need them. They contribute much to the life and ministry of our church. Thus, when we pray for church growth, we need to separate people from finances. We should pray for the finances we need and pray separately for the people to come. God has answered these two distinct prayer requests for my church by giving us a free three-story building and the equivalent of one full-time pastoral salary. The homeless poor in our city include those who use their money in substance abuse, but poor Christians are not people we should try to avoid; rather, they are wonderful people who can enrich the church by their faith-full actions.

[1].    Spencer 2017, 30.

[2].    United States Census Bureau, “Poverty,” https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html; see also University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, “Poverty Facts,” https://poverty.umich.edu/about/poverty-facts, accessed August 22, 2017.

[3].    University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, “Poverty Facts,” http://npc.umich.edu/poverty, accessed July 14, 2016. Moreover, in the United States financial abuse and fraud costs older Americans, many of whom are widows, up to $36.5 billion per year (National Council on Aging, “Elder Abuse Facts,” https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts, cited by Tuoti 2017, A1).

[4].    DoSomething.org, “Eleven Facts about Global Poverty,” https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty, accessed August 8, 2011; Stephanie Lamm, “Poverty in the Dominican Republic,” The Borgen Project, February 10, 2014, https://borgenproject.org/poverty-dominican-republic, accessed August 22, 2017; Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats, accessed January 8, 2020.

[5].    Deborah Coe, Coordinator of Research Services for the Presbyterian Mission, accessed this information on August 25, 2017, from “U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Wave 2, 2008/2009, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Attender Survey,” Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) http://thearda.com/archive/files/analysis/PC08ATT/PC08ATT_Var102_1.asp.

[6].    McGavran 1990, 163, 167, 177.

[7].    Triennial visit January 8, 2012. No one earned $100,000 or more. Thirty-seven percent have parents born outside of the United States.

[8].    All names have been changed for privacy.


This post is adapted from A Commentary on James by Aída Besançon Spencer. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“Spencer’s A Commentary on James is a model of what an excellent, all-encompassing commentary looks like. Readers appreciate the easy to follow structure, the in-depth commentary, and sound doctrinal and practical teaching found in its pages that will make this work a treasured keepsake and the go-to book for teaching on the epistle of James for years to come. I give this commentary my highest recommendation.”

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., President Emeritus, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary


About Author

Aída Besançon Spencer (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Spencer has worked as a community organizer, social worker, minister, and educator in a wide variety of urban settings. Her other publications include 2 Corinthians in the Bible Study Commentary Series and Paul’s Literary Style.

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