Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?

Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone. With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more  than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor.  While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility. Let’s just take one example — the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75-billion dollars.  But, let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  They estimate that 36-million Americans (1-in-8) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance.  On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year. Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers: $1,596 x 36,000,000 = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year.  That’s less than Cato estimates, but will serve our purposes just fine. The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,00 to 400,000.  Let’s use  the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States.  The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday. Here’s where the numbers tell the story:  For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each.  That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance! But, even more difficult is the financial picture.  If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year.  Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150K per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount. Of course, this is only one program.  The SNAP program is run through the US Department of Agriculture, but other programs that provide healthcare are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services.  And those programs don’t include education, transportation, job training, special needs assistance, and on and on. Are you starting to get the picture? The myth that churches can replace the role of government in providing for the nation’s poor is just that — a myth.  Of course, as followers of Christ, we wish we could assist all those who are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, but the reality of life in the 21st century is we cannot.  We might also think that we could provide food, shelter, and care more affordably and efficiently than government does, and that possibility certainly exists.  But even if we were to realize a savings of 50% of the costs of nutrition supplement programs alone, each and every congregation in the United States would still have to spend almost $75,000 per year feeding people.  So, what can we do? The church can do what it has always done.  Churches can provide assistance that complements that of government, while advocating that the weakest in our society are not forsaken.  Let’s take a real look at the role of churches and not pretend that we can, or will, be able to replace the impact of the federal, state, and local government agencies in providing the infrastructure and assistance that the poor in America need.

21 thoughts on “Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?”

  1. I suppose I understand your point, here in 2010 America, the churches probably “can’t” take care of the “poor” who are taken care of by government programs. But how about prior to, let’s say, 1910? Who took care of the neediest among us then? What were Christians known for in the days before government aid to the poor? I don’t think we “can’t”, I think we “won’t” without a massive restructure that returns the tax money supporting these programs to the people in the pews, who could then use it to support the poor in thier areas. Of course, then multitudes of middle class bureaucrats would become unemployed and poor. What a conundrum.

    1. Shannon the truth is poor people just suffered on their own and eventually died before 1910. That’s one of the reasons we have a longer life expectancy today, a combination of better medicine and more help for those who never ever had it before. So from my point of view the combination of church and other charities plus government have done a better and better job of being our brothers keepers.

  2. Very well said, Chuck.

    As a practical matter, it’s simply not going to happen. A lot of the people I hear talking about it are okay with that … I’m not.

    I think it would be great if churches could take care of everyone. But since that’s not happening, whether because we can’t or won’t, as Shannon suggests, then it’s more important to me that the poor be cared for than how we do it.

    Great post.

  3. ……….and Jesus couldn’t feed 5000 with 7 loaves of bread either!

    If the church would do what it should, then God would make sure it could. Let’s put our faith in God – not government.

  4. Shannon, I think that one of the things that has changed since 1910 is that we are no longer a rural, agrarian economy. When most of the country lived on small farms, they could raise or hunt for their own food. With population shifting to urban areas, and farming becoming an “industry” we no longer have enough of the small family farm (or even tenant farms) to enable us to support ourselves independently. And, of course, many went hungry well after 1910, and until the food stamp and other “war on poverty” efforts of the 1960s.

    wken, thanks for your comment. I agree, whether we can’t or won’t the result is the same.

    Patrick, you make a very good point. Perhaps our lack of faith, being overwhelmed with the numbers just like the disciples were is the real problem. It is not that my faith is in government (although Paul said that God had appointed government for our good, and that the first order of prayer was to pray for Kings and all in authority), but that the churches are either unwilling or unable (or both) to take this on. Plus, logistically the problems of distribution, organization, and delivery become huge issues. Still, you make a good point and perhaps a serious conversation about how churches can see their “loaves and fishes” differently might be good.

    Thanks for commenting. Good thoughts from everyone.

  5. I hope that I didn’t come across as “holier than thou” -I’m not. My own eyes have been opened in the last year. I have personally observed a church with less than 70 people, where no one makes more than $75K per year (and many live in poverty), sow $2 million into missions – missions that include foreign and domestic feeding programs, local food distribution, missionary support, etc. They are actively trying to reach their Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth by any and all means. They have no large donors but many people that do not even belong to that church give through it. They are baptist but not affiliated with any convention or group.

    I have been amazed and humbled by these people. They will take no credit. I can see that if we will comnmit ourselves to doing God’s work, and give Him the glory, he will allow us to be used by Him. I can only imagine if every church was like that one (including my own!)

    1. That is the kind of church I want to be a part of, but they are hard to find. We are trapped in the worldly church system, where you need a college degree to be a pastor, and a college degree demands more money, so most of the money is spent on staff.
      We need to be doers of the word, but sadly we are just hearers of the word, and the profession has no interest in changing that because it would affect their livelihood.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, but I have to suggest that of the many who will read them, some are going to say that feeding the poor is an impossible task – and quote your statistics!! That is sad. I understand your heart, but I also have been a church member for the better part of my 80 years and I have yet to know even one that truly cared for the poor. Words yes, but follow through? Seldom. We have allowed the “world” to define poverty for us and then, let others do something about it. But – as I was growing up, when one of our neighbors was ill or lost a job or had “problems”, it was my grandparents and others who were there – and stayed there, until the matter was resolved. That is what is missing, too often.

    Jesus healed and moved on – because He had the power to heal. We do not, but we are capable of standing by as the healing develops.

  7. Sherwood, you remind us of an important point — just because we can’t feed all the hungry doesn’t mean we don’t feed some. I completely agree with you on that, and hope that this article isn’t used to justify inaction and lack of caring. My intent was to present the enormity of the task, and position the church in the helping process, while at the same time pushing back against those who, in their opposition to anything government, misrepresent the church’s capacity to handle the entire burden. Your comments offer the corrective that we do what we can to alleviate suffering in the name of Christ. Thanks.

  8. I agree with your column and thank you for writing it. I have long felt that churches need to work as hard as they can to serve the poor, as well as, as support government programs that serve the poor. How do we know that God is not using christians working through those programs to reach the poor. I am speech pathologist working in a poor rural school to serve children with disabilities. My job would not be possible without the federal special education law and many poor rural children would likely not receive the help they need without this federal law. My faith is what drives me to keep this job, where I have to drive farther and get paid less than I would in the private sector. I feel that many christians are similarly working to serve the poor through vehicles provided by federal programs. I think it takes us all working through lots of different arenas – formal church programs, government programs, individual initiative, etc. God uses everything. Another thing I wonder about, in response to what it was like before 1910…..I don’t have any statistics, but I fear that honestly more people went hungry and suffered more in those days. Some people seem to think of times before big government as “the good old days”, but I wonder if they really lived there and then and saw the realities that it’s easy to forget with distance if they would still feel that way. Also, the population density has increased significantly since before 1910, which goes to your original point of the enormity of the task of serving the poor today.

  9. Sarah, thanks for your very thoughtful reply. Your life and work is a testimony to others just like you who do “social” work with a “spiritual” meaning. I commend your attitude and your efforts. And, of course, you’re right — God does use everything. Thanks for sharing your story with us. -Chuck

  10. Another concern is fairness. Most (I think?) Americans do not go to church, synagogue, mosque, etc. Is it really fair that only those who attend church share the burden that should be equally shared among all Americans? Which leads us, of course, to the next concern–the tax code. Until Americans are fairly taxed–as in, Warren Buffet, Target, etc., have to pay the same percentage of their net worth that I do, things will never be just in this country.

  11. Let’s say we decided to pick up the slack that the government is cutting back on. We could dedicate most of our church resources to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help abused women in need, help people in need of medical treatment, help pay for their medications, provide shelters for the homeless. You get it – the endless need that surrounds us. Say we did all that. Then how could we afford our beautiful new multi-million dollar church and the grand chandeliers, three-thousand dollar Christmas tree, beautiful grounds, and all the up keep? Although, we do help many people, many programs, the food pantry, support retired priests, and missions around the world, not to mention our financial donations to settle abuse litigation. We really are quite generous in our giving as we sit in our comfortable new pews and write out our checks. But without the fancy new church, where would all the faithful come to worship? How can you expect these generous people to receive the sacraments in humble surroundings? Does anyone expect us to sit on folding chairs? Really? I mean, we can only sacrifice so much. Sorry Jesus.

  12. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it….
    Wise words. I suggest starting with the ‘poor laws’ of 19th century Britain. The parishes put together workhouses. You can find it on the interwebs. Go look. I’ll wait for you. Nasty, isn’t it?
    See if you can see any similarities between the industrial revolution, the impoverishment of the working classes, and the disparity between them and the elite (Corporations and wealthy industrialists) and what we see today. See how the ‘churches’ helped the poor.
    Now, if it takes just $57.5Billion to feed the hungry (in what people insist is the greatest nation on earth! How can you say that when so many are hungry?), a better way to help the poor would simply be to tax the churches. That would account for about $72Billion a year. Yes, you subsidize the churches because they help some people…
    Tax them, and use that money to end hunger. Then the churches can really say they feed the needy and actually do what their Jesus would have done.

  13. The church I currently attend has the only food and clothing bank in our valley. We serve approximately 200 families with donations from the ~600 families attending our church. Most of the poor we serve don’t qualify for government benefits for one reason or another. The benevolence groups within the church can fully support one family for a little more than two months before their funds are used up for the year. The cost of living (food/rent/heat, etc) in this county is high–among the highest in the nation.

    Take a family of four: in this area rent would be nearly $1400/month, groceries about $500, and electricity run about $150. This doesn’t include things like healthcare, and assistance with budgeting or job finding skills. (God forbid one of these families has a healthcare emergency like appendicitis, or a broken bone.) How long can one church provide $2000+ a month for even one family, let alone the 200 needy families we currently serve from our food bank? Without government assistance (economy of scale and resources, etc.) the vast majority of the poor would be homeless, hungry, and too injured to work.

    Thank God for the assistance that our government does provide.

  14. Chuck, you’re using a picture of my nephew, Jesse Fliris, he is neither hungry or poor. I suggest you find another picture to push your storytelling.

  15. A (perhaps ‘the’) major problem with food in the US is that 40% of all food produced is wasted or thrown away. Correct this problem, and there is plenty of food for the needy, and more to export to the needy in other countries.

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