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Poverty in Australia? A Christian response

Friday, 18 October 2019  | Rosie Kendall

What does it mean to live in poverty? If you pictured a young family living in a crowded makeshift community in India, you’d be right. But that image alone isn’t the full picture of this vast and unjust human experience that we call poverty.

We’re a nation of opportunity, built on equality and a ‘fair go’, yet that’s not how things play out for everyone. Does poverty in Australia really compare to the devastating poverty we know of in other nations? If poverty exists, yet looks different here, what does this mean for our local communities?

Right now, in Australia, 3 million people are living in poverty. Critically, 739,000 of these are children. Each of these children do not have the same opportunities as other kids their age — they are beginning life on the back foot.

The poverty line in Australia (updated regularly to account for inflation) currently sits at about $433 per week for a single employed person living on their own and $909 per week for couples with two children.

These incomes alone are sobering, yet there is more to the story. Poverty lines are generally calculated as 50% of the median household income in that country. Many of those living under the poverty line in Australia are in what is known as ‘deep poverty’. On average, those under the poverty line are $135 a week under it.

For these 3 million people under the line, every day requires impossible choices between competing basic needs. Christians Against Poverty has found that, before talking with one of our services, 84% of clients said debt negatively affected their physical or mental health, 60% had sacrificed meals, and with this stress it’s easy to see why 1 in 4 had considered or attempted suicide.

No two stories of poverty will look exactly alike, either within Australia or between two countries. What ties them together are common themes of deprivation that no person should be subject to: lack of nutrition, reduced ability to access medical care, insecure housing and relational isolation.

Poverty also affects more of us than you might think. An Anglicare study in 2018 revealed that 16% of their respondents couldn’t afford basic necessities in the past 12 months. This number is higher than those officially under the poverty line and tells us that many households at some point will experience events beyond their control — illness, unemployment, relationship breakdown or an accident — that can bring about adversity in the form of poverty.

The reality is, right now on your street, sitting next to you at church, behind you in the coffee queue – someone is struggling. Poverty doesn’t discriminate, and while people might be good at putting a brave face on for friends and family, behind closed doors, they’re drowning.

Is there an answer to poverty?

It’s easy to see the stats and be disheartened — why haven’t we fixed it?

In first century Palestine, most of the population lived a subsistent life, meaning that they farmed to survive, earning just enough to feed, clothe and house their family. Throw in Roman occupation and oppression, and it’s easy to see how many people spent their lives just fighting to survive. Life was pretty tough. But into the situation stepped the biggest advocate for the poor the world has ever known.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6: 20-21)

Jesus made a point of loving people in poverty. There are over 300 passages related to the poor and needy in the Bible. It’s a big deal to God: both what He thinks of the poor, and how we should respond.

We do need to be careful about drawing direct comparisons between the first and twenty-first century. We’ve come a long way in creating laws to stamp out oppression, helping those unable to work, and providing healthcare to those who can’t afford it.

But the fact remains: In Australia, there are people living in similar conditions to the poorest during the time of Jesus.

So in twenty-first century Australia, what’s the answer?

Walk the walk

Having a heart for the poor is one thing. But what are we putting into action? We can read the stories, hear the news and see people living in poverty all around us. But what should we do?

The book of James doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s a challenge to put our money where our mouths are:

If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:5-7)

As we spend time looking at poverty, we need to hear that challenge. If our heart breaks for the plight of the poor and we’re moved, but don’t do anything about it, what good is it? All the well-wishing in the world won’t calm the storms for Aussie families struggling to make ends meet.

But just tackling the physical stuff isn’t the answer either. Helping people out of debt might break the chains of financial stress. But as Christians, we know true freedom comes from a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

So, what’s the answer? As Christians, how do we truly serve the poor?

Jesus established the very institution we need to plant ourselves in the heart of a community, and like a city on a hill, go out to our community as one body, to reach the people that need practical help – motivated by the love of Jesus.

The answer: The Church

Christians Against Poverty believes Jesus created the Church to continue what He started: to serve the poor, to save the lost and to point people to His good news. That’s why CAP exists: to equip a movement of churches to carry out that mission: to serve and include the poor, while confidently proclaiming Jesus.

Everything we do is in partnership with local churches, right at the heart of their communities. We resource, equip and train God’s churches and their people to do what Jesus called us to do. Through our CAP Debt Centres, we’re stepping into the homes of some of the poorest and most desperate people in society, offering them a practical solution and sharing the love of Jesus.

Many Aussies who are experiencing poverty, particularly as a result of debt, simply need an advocate: someone who can lift the distressing burden form their shoulders, offer advice, support, friendship and walk through solutions together. This is exactly what our Debt Coaches do. Equipped through the strength of the local church, they bring to their communities the relief of a solution and the hope of Jesus.

Through the CAP Money Course, churches are trained to deliver courses on money management and provide world-class tools to individuals wanting to get a grip on their savings.

Some things never change. Jesus said ‘the poor will always be among you’ – but we’re here to help your church shine a light, offer hope and a solution. And sharing the gospel remains central to it all.

I would encourage you, if your heart is moved by the plight of the poor in Australia, to head over to our website to find out what you and your church can do.

Rosie Kendall is the CEO of Christians Against Poverty and has been working for CAP both here and in the UK for 10 years. She loves the church and seeing the bride of Christ respond to Jesus’ call to serve the poor and save the lost. She is passionate about equipping others to flourish in all that God has created them to be. Rosie’s husband Dave also works at CAP and they have three beautiful daughters, Esther, Lydia and the most recent addition, Maeve.

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