A Census Bureau report recently released found the percentage of Americans now living in poverty rose to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest in decades.
For many of us, this was a huge shock. News like this sends a shudder through our collective spine. And for every family that finds itself now living in poverty, it isn't a headline at all; it is a personal tragedy.
But as we come to grips with this most recent statistic, we have a dual set of challenges. On one hand, we need to do all in our power to help those struggling here at home. But we also have the challenge of viewing poverty with "global bifocals." With one portion of the lens we see and attack needs close to home. With the other portion of the lens we focus on the realities of global poverty that may seem far away.
Here at home, poverty is a single mom in Detroit trying to keep food on the table. In Africa, poverty is a 14-year-old orphaned head-of-household trying to find fresh water for himself and his siblings. The challenge isn't to choose one over the other. The task is to view two harsh realities through a common lens of compassion and assistance.
In America, poverty is defined as living on less than $26.22 per day. In the rest of the world poverty is defined as living on less than $1.25 per day.
In America, clean water flows from our faucets and we still purchase designer water. In the developing world, clean water is kilometers away and more than 1 billion people lack access to potable water. In fact, 1.4 million children will die this year from waterborne diseases. That's more than 3,800 children every day -- yesterday, today and tomorrow.
In America, access to medical care, though often costly, is everywhere. Despite our challenges in health care, emergency rooms don't lock their doors to those in need. In the developing world, simply having a hospital or clinic nearby is uncommon, and transportation to remote medical care facilities is rarely available. People in developing countries accept disease, even preventable or curable diseases, as a way of life.
In most of America, we feel secure in our homes, our communities and our workplaces. We are free to travel from one place to the other without fear of being attacked or harmed. Americans also benefit from law enforcement driven by integrity and honor. In developing countries, gang activity and violence are commonplace, preventing children from attending school and people from going to work. Violence against women and children are too often accepted as daily realities. Yet, appealing to local law enforcement may be the last place one turns -- such are the fears of police corruption and retaliation.
In America, government safety nets exist to provide food and energy assistance, unemployment benefits and job training. In the developing world, few government programs exist to alleviate dire needs or the corrupt steal what benefits are available.
And of course, in America, food is plentiful and affordable. Countless overflowing dumpsters evidence the food that goes wasted each day in our grocery stores, restaurants and homes. Soup kitchens, shelters and churches work hard to provide food for those who need it. In the developing world, children still scavenge garbage dumps for half-eaten or spoiled remnants. And in the most abject cases, some will eat one meal a day -- or maybe not at all.
I write from the experience of traveling in the countries where Compassion International works with the poorest of the poor to rescue children who live in dire conditions.
Christian compassion should not be limited by geography. In the book of Acts, Jesus told His disciples that they were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea to the ends of the earth. His challenge to Christians was not bounded by national borders. In an age without airplanes and Internet, Jesus still challenged His disciples to share His love and compassion far and wide. In light of today's technological advantages and modern conveniences, how can we justify an ethnocentric, xenophobic approach to compassion?
At the same time, we need not feel guilty for America's abundance. It is from our abundance that we share and invest and meet the needs of our neighbor down the street and the child in Uganda. But that is exactly our challenge at times like these.
When we are tempted by fear to pull back and only look at the statistics at home, it is exactly the time to use "global bifocals." We have the ability to meet needs at home and balance them with the needs of our neighbors far away.
We can see them both. To do any less is to squint at reality.