Being “missional” and showing a concern for justice for the poor have become issues of increasing concern among American evangelicals. Yet the focus tends to tend to be on urban minorities instead of the largest percentage of Americans living under the poverty line.
If you want to hear crickets in a room full of educated, missionally minded, culture-shaping evangelicals, says Anthony Bradley, ask this question: “What are you doing to serve the needs of poor white people?”
Even though lower-class whites comprise the largest percentage of America’s welfare recipients and the largest percentage of those living below the poverty line, evangelicals remain largely focused on poverty among African-Americans and Hispanics. The imagery conjured by “social justice” and “mercy-ministry” rhetoric is a collage of underprivileged African-American and Hispanic kids living in “da hood.” When evangelicals are challenged to relocate to poor areas for the sake of the being “missional,” small towns and rural areas with high concentrations of lower-class whites, like Springfield, Mo., or Troy, N.Y., do not normally make the list. While Christian colleges and seminaries across America are teeming with “urban ministry” programs, there is only one large, accredited seminary in America that has a degree program targeted specifically for rural ministry: Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., a seminary founded and supported by the United Methodist Church.
One common excuse for the lack of focus on white poverty is how disproportionately worse poverty is in black and Hispanic communities. There is no argument there. African-Americans have a poverty rate of 25.8 percent, Hispanics/Latinos 17.1 percent, whites 11.6 percent, and Asian-Americans 5.3 percent. But, in terms of absolute numbers, there are more poor whites in the United States than any other group. More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line for a family of four, which is nearly twice the number of blacks. Therefore, whites account for more than 41 percent of the nation’s poor, argues author Mark Rank in Chasing the American Dream. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that whites receive 69 percent of U.S. government public welfare benefits. In other words, when you hear words like “poor” or “welfare queen,” which conservatives coined in the 1980s, the image that should come to mind is that of a single, white female.