Will Ministry with the Poor Abolish Poverty?


Did you know that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed we could and should abolish poverty? I must confess my own ignorance, because I didn’t, and here I am directing the North Texas Conference Zip Code Connection, which was established to “eradicate poverty in two zip codes by 2025.” (Click here for more information about the Zip Code Connection.)

In March of this year, I became a student in SMU’s Perkins Theological School for the Laity, and took a crash course in poverty from Perkins Professor Theodore Walker, Jr.  He describes himself as a Baptist from North Carolina who arrived at Perkins via Catholic Notre Dame University, and became a Methodist when he found a faith community at St. Luke “Community” UMC.

The course was titled Theological Ethics in American Politics: From 1932 to the Present—interesting enough to gain my attention and enrollment.  The three main resources for the course were:

  • Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
  • The Bible:  Luke 4: 14-19; Matthew 5:43-48; Matthew 22:34-40

As I discovered in the opening of the class, we were going to look at the three Bible passages in which Jesus—“filled with the Holy Spirit”—spoke about bringing good news to the poor, consider Niebuhr’s divide between the ethical and “moral” behaviors of individuals and small groups and the “immoral” behaviors we accept from our state and national governments, and examine the call from Dr. King to abolish poverty.

Throughout the class, Professor Walker repeated: “Most of our Christian missions—food pantries and the like—are about helping the poor become a little less miserable in their continuing poverty—because we don’t really believe that poverty can be abolished, and that the best we can do is address some of the symptoms from time to time.”

He challenged us to take on the abolition of poverty, just as the Wesleys helped lead the movement that abolished slavery in England long before it was abolished here in the United States.  People in that time didn’t believe that slavery could (or even should) be abolished, and yet it was, thanks in part to Wesleyans inspired by the Holy Spirit.

I had never read this particular text by Dr. King, and was astonished to find that his stand on civil rights was not only about ending de jure segregation—which did happen—but was also about the civil rights of economic parity.  King reviewed all of the social programs that have been created to address poverty and saw that none of them have succeeded on a large scale.  He said, “In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect.  Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.” 

Then King went on to make this statement that calls into question most of the anti-poverty programs in the world, perhaps even the Zip Code Connection:

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

The Zip Code Connection has prided itself on our focus of “Ministry With” and our belief that  connecting people, resources, faith communities, and organizations all engaged in activities impacting poverty would somehow eradicate it.  But King says that we can have all of the programs arrayed and all of the dots connected and still have poverty simply because not everyone has a livable income

He adds, “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished . . . The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

Assuming, as King did, that a guaranteed income must be pegged to the median income of society and not to the lowest levels of income, the obvious question arises:  how would we pay for this? Researchers for the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network estimate that a small Basic Income Guarantee sufficient to cut the poverty rate in half could be financed without an increase in taxes by redirecting funds from spending programs and tax deductions aimed at maintaining incomes. 

So I am left with three intriguing questions, which may need to be asked by other “anti-poverty” initiatives:

  • The Zip Code Connection has chosen to focus on a positive vision of transformed communities, rather than on what seemed to be a more negative goal of “eradication” of poverty.  Are the theories of change inherent in the Zip Code Connection's four focus areas (Community Engagement, Education, Health and Wellness, and Economic Development) really likely to eradicate poverty or are we just rearranging the furniture?
  • Do we really believe in “Ministry With,” in “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” in the assets that our neighbors bring to the table?  Does our focus on improving education, health and community first imply that we don’t believe our neighbors would make the “right” decisions if we simply guarantee them a basic livable income?
  • Should we be working just as hard on achieving justice and equality for all our neighbors through changes in public policies that offer a more direct approach to abolishing poverty as we currently do on measures that might still—at best—only alleviate it? 

I can’t answer these questions today, but I have an uncomfortable idea of how Dr. King might answer them for me.  And I have an even greater concern about how Jesus would view my discomfort. 

Editor's note:  See the companion piece by Dr. Theodore Walker, Jr., "Abolishing Poverty: Holy Spirit-Inspired Wesleyans Appreciate MLK, Jr."


  1. Eric Bass says:
    In a society like ours, it will always be true that policy makers have more power to reduce (or even eradicate) poverty than individual organizations acting on the ground. The question of where effort should be placed has an answer that is both simple and confoundingly complex: Where it will do the most good. In the face of uncertainty in our outcomes, we tend to answer with a hedge of local action combined with advocacy. As far as local action goes, the Zip Code Connection represents an innovative approach, and any success it registers will take time to manifest. But how much effort should be diverted to advocacy, and where should it be place? Advocacy for a Guaranteed Universal Income seems, to me, quixotic in this political climate. There is no doubt we can afford it, but facts like this seldom seem to weigh strongly in policy decision making. In an environment where food stamps and social security are under attack, the fight for GUI would be very long and grueling indeed. What will go very far toward alleviating poverty is raising the minimum wage. There is no reason why someone working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, should have to turn to food stamps and the earned income tax credit to make ends meet. The fight for a living wage has gained considerable momentum in recent years, and the UMC (and all churches) absolutely should be enthusiastically behind this effort.
    Mar 23rd, 2016

Lynn Parsons

Lynn Parsons is the director of the Zip Code Connection, a long-term initiative of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church aimed at eradicating poverty in two zip codes by 2025. Prior to this position, she was an educator, with more than 40 years of experience in public education in a wide variety of settings. She holds a BA and MEd from Trinity University in San Antonio and a doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She and her husband Jim are proud parents of Emily Bass and her husband Eric, and even prouder grandparents of Joey, Maddie, and Danny.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.