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Why 95% of Americans are wrong about poverty

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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A businessman walks past a homeless man lying on a bench in Tokyo (Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

In a recent article for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof examined the media’s propensity to focus on stories about war, scandal, and disaster to the neglect of more positive news. He wrote in particular about the coverage, or lack thereof, for the decline in poverty, illiteracy, and disease around the world. To demonstrate his point, he cites a recent survey that “found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.” As he goes on to explain, “That’s 95 percent of Americans—who are utterly wrong.”

Despite the fact that news agencies often spend far more time covering stories of starving children and disease-rampaged cultures, extreme poverty (those earning less than $1.95 per day) around the world has fallen from 35% in 1993 to 14% in 2011. The World Bank projects that figure to fall to 9.6% by the end of this year.

Kristof continues by telling how 80% of girls in developing countries complete elementary school, up from roughly 50% in the 1980’s. Moreover, the death toll among children before the age of 5 has dropped by more than half since 1990. In part because parents know their children are more likely to survive, the birth rate in developing countries has dropped as well making it easier to support one’s family on what is still often a marginal, though not impoverished, income.  

Does all of that surprise you? It did me. And while the problem is not solved—16,000 children still die each day from preventable or treatable causes according to UNICEF—real progress has been made. As Steven Radelet, a development economist who teaches at Georgetown University, noted, “We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world. . . The next two decades can be even better and can become the greatest era of progress for the world’s poor in human history.” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim echoed those sentiments when he stated that “We are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.”

My point today is not to disparage the media or speak ill of those who have dedicated their lives to helping the general public become more informed. After all, news agencies focus on the negative because that is what the ratings tell them we most want to see. Rather, I’d like to discuss the power of hope and the need to work together in order to make a real difference in this world.

One of the main reasons that extreme poverty around the world has declined so much in recent years is that people believed it could happen. They had hope that their efforts could make a real impact on the problem and have done just that as a result. I must confess that far too often I look at problems like global poverty or disease with a sense of hopeless defeat. It’s the idea that the issue is too big and I’m too small.

And you know what, that’s true. I can’t solve global poverty, but I can be part of the solution. And, in the end, that’s all that we have to do. Whether it’s poverty, disease, or any other problem that plagues our world, the solution will never be found in the efforts of individuals but rather in the work of people that join together to address the issue. That is the truth of God’s word, and history has shown it to be the most effective strategy for bringing about real and lasting change. As the author of Ecclesiastes explained, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up…a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, 12).

God has called all Christians to be his hands and feet to the world around us. However, he calls us to do that as part of the body of Christ, working together with others to accomplish his will. So whether it’s addressing issues in your city or on the other side of the world, do not attempt to do it alone. God has not equipped you for that because that was never his plan. Rather, pray and ask the Lord what role he would have you play in working alongside others that have been given a similar calling. We can do far more for the kingdom when we work with others than we can by ourselves. Who is God calling you to work with today?