Perhaps the poor will always be with us. And consequently, so must the merciful acts of Christian believers.

After falling for four consecutive years, the official poverty rate in the United States rose from 11.3 to 11.7 percent in 2001. That translates into an additional 1.3 million human beings adding their number to a crowd already 31.6 million strong—hardly an invisible fraction of the population.

But there is an even larger segment of the population that stands as a much better candidate for the “invisible poor” category. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, roughly half of those 31 million or so Americans were actually employed for more than half of the year. That’s right—roughly 6 million Americans officially classified in poverty were actually holding paying jobs for 27 weeks or more out of the year.

Add to this number the vast percentage of the American work force that is working at or slightly above minimum wage (and somehow managing to stay off the bureau’s poverty list), and you have that elusive quantity known as the “working poor”—elusive not because of any question regarding the cold reality of their existence, but elusive only to the extent that “working poor” is a term without technical definition.  Some estimates put the number as high as 30 percent of the American work force.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her recent book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, does a commendable job of putting faces on the numbers. Partly in response to a dare from her editor, Ehrenreich entered the underbelly of the American economy for two years, accepting only minimum paying jobs—in restaurants, hotels, a maid service and even Wal-Mart—to determine firsthand what it takes to survive on the wages of the “unskilled” work force.

What she discovered is the exhausting and all-consuming process of simply remaining housed and minimally nourished. As readers join Ehrenreich for the ride, we come to know real human beings attempting to “make it,” living in cars for weeks at a time, postponing basic health care for lack of insurance, fretting over how to come up with the cash to purchase uniforms required by many employers, and experiencing the humiliating (and questionably effective) system of drug-testing.

What Ehrenreich does best is help the reader view the poor not merely as those who live a kind of enforced simplicity, but rather as people in perpetual crisis. She writes:

“It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition—austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don’t they? They are ‘always with us.’ What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The ‘home’ that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be ‘worked through,’ with gritted teeth, because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next.”

Though not a Christian, Ehrenreich’s reference to Jesus’ words is suggestive. When the woman who anointed Jesus with an expensive ointment was criticized by the disciples for wasting what could have been a substantial contribution to the poor, the Lord responded with the memorable words, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (Mk 14:7).

Whether Ehrenreich is offering a subtle critique of the text or simply its misuse is beside the point: Some in the church have used these words to excuse a less than zealous concern for the impoverished.

Yet, such an exegesis is impossible to maintain. Jesus’ words echo a passage from the law which would have been familiar to his audience: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'” (Deut 15:11). Here the universality of the poor is hardly a justification for their neglect. Rather, it painfully reminds us that because of the gravity of this evil, God’s people must persist in their concern and ministry to those in need.

Jesus was not rescinding the imperative to care for the poor. He was focusing on the rightness of that anointing in which he was honored and prepared for his impending passion. If anything, Jesus’ words remind the church that ministry to the poor will be an ongoing part of its life this side of eternity.

And indeed, even in the land of plenty, it shouldn’t require an undercover agent like Ehrenreich to expose the immensity of the need that surrounds us. Still, we can be grateful for the reminder. The working poor surround us much like the air we breathe. They wait on our tables, prepare our meals, clean our hotel rooms, sack our groceries and park our cars. Because their hands are not outstretched, it is tempting to think we have no obligation to them. Their real needs are not always obvious.

What does the church’s ministry to the working poor look like? There is much that congregations can and should do. Because the working poor have some income, they often fail to qualify for basic government entitlements and thus slip through the cracks of the social service network. Congregations, both alone and through local coalitions, can work to establish emergency food assistance, rent and mortgage assistance, free clinic service or funding for basic medical help.

While action on economic and structural levels is essential, Christian faith urges a personal response as well. In American society, the working poor stand at the bottom of the ladder of prestige and status. In this sense they are truly invisible to the world’s eyes. It is easy to take for granted the maids, the clerks, the woman behind the burger counter or the man sweeping the floor of the mall.

Wherever the opportunity presents itself to show respect to “one of the least of these,” to be patient with the forgetful waitress who is likely having a bad day, to leave a generous tip for a room maid we will never see, then we do these things for Christ.

Perhaps the poor will always be with us. And consequently, so must the merciful acts of Christian believers.

Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.

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