What does it mean to live in poverty? If you pictured a young family living in a crowded makeshift community in India, you’d be right. But that image alone isn’t the full picture of this vast and unjust human experience that we call poverty.
Right now, in Australia, three million people are living in poverty. Critically, 739,000 of these are children. The poverty line (updated regularly to account for inflation) currently sits at about $A433 per week for a single employed person living on their own and $A909 per week for couples with two children.
These incomes alone are sobering, yet there is more to the story. Poverty lines are generally calculated as 50 per cent of the median household income in that country. Many of those living under the poverty line in Australia are in what is known as “deep poverty”. On average, those under the poverty line are $A135 a week under it. Do the maths. Could you live on $A298 a week as a single person?
For these three million people under the line, every day requires impossible choices between competing basic needs. At Christians Against Poverty (CAP), we asked our clients about their circumstances in the days and weeks before they approached us for help. Their answers were sobering: 84 per cent of clients said debt had negatively affected their physical or mental health and 60 per cent said they’d sacrificed meals to meet their financial commitments. With this stress, it’s not surprising to hear that one in four clients had considered or attempted to take their life before coming to CAP.
“I had pain in my chest worrying about where the next dollar was going to come from,” said Peter, one of our debt-help clients. “I thought about suicide. I felt like I was a failure. I felt like I’d lost all my self-worth.”
The reality is that right now—on your street, sitting next to you at the bus stop, behind you in the coffee queue—someone is struggling. Poverty doesn’t discriminate, and while people might be good at putting on a brave face for friends and family, behind closed doors they’re often drowning.
What’s the answer?
It’s easy to hear these grim facts and be disheartened, but what is the answer? We can read the stories, hear the news and see people living in poverty all around us. But what should we do?
In the Bible, James, an early church leader believed to be the brother of Jesus, doesn’t beat around the bush, challenging us to take action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15,16).
If my heart is broken for the plight of the poor, but I do nothing, what good is my sympathy? All the pity and well-wishing in the world won’t calm the storms for families struggling to make ends meet.
Meeting practical needs
Many Aussies who are experiencing poverty, particularly as a result of debt, need an advocate—someone who can lift the distressing burden from their shoulders; offer advice, support, friendship and walk through solutions together. This is exactly what CAP debt coaches do.
CAP debt coaches are members of a local church who connect with clients face-to-face, most often in their homes, assessing their situation and helping them collect everything they need to move forward with debt help. The coaches then liaise with trained staff at head office who put together a sustainable budget for the clients and negotiate waivers and payment terms with creditors on the client’s behalf, ensuring the client can live well while paying off their debt.
However, there’s more to debt advocacy than debt relief. Through the CAP Money Course, churches are also trained to deliver courses to actively promote financial wellbeing, providing excellent tools for individuals and families wanting to build a budget and have a healthy relationship with their money. Both CAP Debt Help and the CAP Money Course are offered completely free of charge.
But just tackling the physical stuff isn’t the complete answer either. Helping people out of debt might break the chains of financial stress, but as a Christian organisation we know true freedom comes from a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. He established the very institution needed in the heart of a community to reach the people with practical help: the church.
The power of local churches
Business operator John Kirkby, who had experienced bankruptcy himself, started Christians Against Poverty in the UK in 1996 under the belief that Jesus created the church to continue what He started: to serve the poor, to point people to His good news and to make disciples. That’s why CAP exists: to equip a movement of churches to carry out that mission: to serve and include the poor, while confidently proclaiming Jesus.
Everything CAP does is in partnership with local churches. Through CAP Debt Centres, members of the local church step into the homes of some of the poorest and most desperate people in society, offering them a practical solution, and always giving them the opportunity to respond to the love of Jesus. This was how Peter’s life was completely transformed from despair to hope. “Now I’m debt-free and I’ve recommitted my life back to God,” he says. “I can see what God has done and I’m not thinking about dying anymore. I feel very happy. CAP has saved me from possible death, and I owe my life to them.”
Rosie Kendall is the CEO of CAP Australia and has been working for CAP both in Australia and in the UK for 12 years. She and her husband Dave have three beautiful daughters, Esther, Lydia and their most recent addition, Maeve. Find out more about CAP Australia at <capaust.org> or CAP New Zealand at <capnz.org>.