Sin and the Cycle of Poverty

The following is a guest post from Joni Podschun, who advocates for access to food, robust safety net programs, and in-home care for seniors through her work at an interfaith non-profit service provider. You can also follow her on Twitter (@joni_pod).

Neuroscientists recently released a report showing that high levels of stress caused by childhood poverty have a negative impact on working memory, leading to learning delays and long-term underachievement. These new findings illuminate just one piece of what is called the “cycle of poverty”—a set of factors and events that keep a person or area in poverty.

On Sunday, Rev. Dean Snyder of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC preached about the blood of Jesus, sin, and God’s work in our messy world. His insights also apply to poverty:

“The message [of the blood sacrifice] is that there is a deadly cost and consequence to the sin that we participate in. That sin kills. That sin takes away peoples lives. That sin is not harmless of innocuous. That sin causes death.” [audio]

His list of sins included “isms” rarely discussed in church—racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, and able-bodyism. He pointed out the harmful implications of these sins through generations, drawing from the Old Testament passages in which God admonishes that if we do not follow the law, our sins will haunt us to the 1st, 2nd, 4th, or even 10th generations.

To me, the choices that the bulk of American citizens have made over the years—to prioritize economic development above human capital development, to ignore a broken education system, and to put poverty on the back burner—are sinful. And they have collateral effects through generations, mostly visited on the innocent children born in families trapped in the cycle of poverty.

In many cases, the consequences are visited on entire communities. According to Stacey Rolland, “Just as the socioeconomic status of a family matters for their well-being, the economic and social environments of neighborhoods have significant influence on the life course and outcomes of individual residents, even after taking account of their personal and family characteristics.”

In other words, regardless of income, family characteristics, and personal choices, neighborhood poverty has an influence on anyone living in the community. Most researchers think this is due to problems such as overcrowded and substandard housing, the stresses of poverty, lack of health care, and poor nutrition. Neighborhood poverty leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy, low school performance, violence, and poor health.

Food insecurity (i.e. hunger, but technically: the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally acceptable and safe foods) is another sin that impacts future generations. Young children who experience food insecurity in their most formative years are unlikely to have the tools to get a good job in the future. New research by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success draws a fascinating parallel between food insecurity in young children and long-term outcomes related to human capital development, such as academic underachievement, lower lifetime earnings, and poor physical and mental health. In other words, children who are hungry now will have a hard time earning enough to afford their basic needs, including feeding their own children, in the future.

Of course, there is some shared responsibility. People make bad decisions. But the inadequacies of the system make it incredibly difficult to rebound from a mistake. In most of our communities, we do not have a safety net system that reinforces people’s efforts to mend their lives. Instead, we make it harder for people. They have to run around town to apply for assistance at different offices. If they fall into homelessness, we warehouse them in communal shelters rather than providing a safe, healing environment for them to put their lives back together. And we cut people off from work supports like subsidized health care and child care when their income has just started to grow, instead of finding a way to slowly transition people to self-sufficiency without penalizing their progress.

Regardless of your views of why people fall into the traps of poverty and hunger, surely we can all agree that children are not to blame for these problems and should be shielded as much as possible from the negative effects. Our great sin is not loving these children enough to fix the system. The choice to maintain the status quo has consequences for all of us that will take generations to heal.

One of the miracles of the Passion is that Jesus is present with us in our brokenness. God became human, one of us, to participate in the suffering created by the sins of the world. Jesus willingly takes on our pain, even to the point of death. And there is hope. Sin is not the only story. Our communities and our churches have the capacity to be compassionate, radically inclusive, and justice-driven. We can make better choices with our shared resources to eradicate these sins. Through Jesus’ presence and teachings we learn to love each other better and sin a little less.

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