(Photo: Reuters/David McNew)
In the final months of the presidential election, both major candidates mentioned the term "middle class" countless times in any effort to mobilize the country's largest voting bloc. What they rarely, if ever, mentioned were those who live below the poverty line and what role the government and the Church should play in helping these 46.2 million Americans.
When broken down to numbers that are easier to grasp, roughly 1-in-7, or 15 percent of Americans, are poor, up slightly from the previous year's total of 43.6 million.
But what constitutes as a poor family in America? The U.S. Census Bureau defines poverty as a hypothetical family of two adults and two children living on an income of $23,021 or less in 2011. The median household income in the U.S. in 2011 was $50,054.
Yet the more poignant question is what is the primary cause of poverty and what role should the Church and the government play in reducing this number?
Pastor Phillip Meek leads Love and Truth Church in Savannah, Tenn., a rural area located just above the Mississippi-Alabama state line. The region's major employer is a paper mill and a handful of other manufacturing plants located in neighboring communities. Retail, service and government jobs comprise the majority of employment opportunities in the area.
Meek feels the church is better equipped to help the area's poor, but sees the underlying issue is caused by a breakdown in the family structure.
"What is the major cause of poverty? If you ask me it's the breakdown of the family," Meek told The Christian Post. "Once the family breaks down, nothing functions properly, including the church."
Meek looked back on his own upbringing in rural West Tennessee and recalled that his childhood was absent of many material possessions, but had an intact family with a father who adhered to financial discipline.
"I grew up poor; you could call it dirt poor. We didn't have an indoor bathroom for a while and this was in the '60s," he said. "But we had food on the table and decent clothes on our backs. My dad would not buy anything on credit. If he could not pay cash for something he would not buy it. He died owing absolutely no one."
But that type of mentality is not evident in many of today's poor households.
For example, nearly two-thirds of "poor" households have cable or satellite TV and at least one DVD player. More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, and over one-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
More interesting is that 96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year and 83 percent of those poor families had enough to eat during the year. Others are asking if what the government is doing in terms of entitlement programs is in reality giving people little to no motivation to improve their lifestyle.
Government statistics show that over 100 million people in the U.S. are receiving some form of federal welfare. Food stamps and Medicaid make up a large and growing chunk of the group that receives federal welfare, which includes not only citizens, but non-citizens as well.
For comparison purposes, in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America," the rate was around 19 percent and falling, reaching its lowest level at 10.5. Over $12 trillion dollars in federal dollars – not included. The Obama administration has increased spending on welfare programs by more than $193 million.
According to a CATO Institute study, seven different cabinet agencies and six independent agencies administer at least one anti-poverty program.
Meek says the issue of poverty in America is not so much an issue of starvation, but rather a motivation to improve a family's ability to provide for themselves.
"The mindset of a poor person today is different than it was a few decades ago. Some people are not motivated to improve their situation and are only looking for a handout. Many are trying to find a job but struggle in an area like ours that has little to no new employment opportunities. Still the church and those who subscribe to Jesus Christ are tasked with the responsibility to help others."
He also sees "giving" as a major problem within the church.
"If Christians gave anywhere close to the 10 percent asked of them by God, not only would the church have ample resources, but in my opinion we would have enough to go around to help those who are really needy."
"Because the church has not done what it is supposed to do, the government has taken over and as we all know, government has to have total control of anything they have their hands in," explained Meek. "The government never looks for way to cut back and ask individual to shoulder more of that responsibility.
In addition, Meek says his church is trying to become more of a community-based church and with God's help they will break the status quo.
"We have spent so much time fighting against one another that we have not done all we are asked to do by God to help our fellow man. There has been too much division between churches and that's what we are trying to change in our community," Meeks said.
"I believe in James 1:27 when he tells us 'to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.'"