02 The Parts We Play

The Parts We Play


How Individuals and Churches in the U.S. are Confronting Poverty

Many people are willing to pitch in their time and resources, whether or not they feel poverty work falls solely to them. For instance, while just one in eight U.S. adults (12%) tells Barna that they believe individuals bear primary responsibility to address domestic poverty, about twice as many (24%) take action through volunteering, and 62 percent say they give money to local organizations like shelters or food banks. They’re ready to tackle the problem without necessarily regarding themselves as the solution. Perhaps the saying really does epitomize Americans’ sentiment: Doing something is always better than doing nothing.

This chapter looks at the many ways that Americans—specifically those who are active in church—are forging ahead in the fight against poverty.

Giving Money for Poverty

In a 2016 Barna study in partnership with Thrivent Financial, one in nine U.S. Christians who attend church at least annually (11%) said that their ultimate financial goal is to have enough money to give charitably, and a similar percentage (10%) hopes to serve God with their money. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults overall (72%) said that generosity is very or extremely important to them.25

Comparing to this study, some of Americans’ altruistic intentions extend to addressing poverty specifically. On average, the typical American reports donating $434 in the past year to causes or organizations that help children in extreme poverty, with a range of $0 up to $65,000. When non-donors are excluded, the average annual donation rises to $809. Still, nearly half of U.S. adults (46%) do not report donating any money for child poverty in the last year.26

The most commonly reported donations are $50 and $100 (each with 7% of all U.S. adults, 13% of donors) or $20 (5% of U.S. adults, 9% of donors) per year.

Giving Habits of Christians

Personal involvement in confronting poverty goes hand-in-hand with Christianity—practicing Christianity, that is. When it comes to anti-poverty work, active Christianity, rather than notional Christianity, makes all the difference. While Christians are sometimes equally involved as those of other faiths, self-identified Christians who do not participate in church life and / or do not say their faith is very important to them show patterns of involvement much more similar to non-religious U.S. adults.

For practicing Christians, it starts in the heart: One in three (34%) says that they are very concerned about global poverty, significantly more than the one in five non-practicing Christians (20%) who share this interest. The burden that practicing Christians feel regarding poverty naturally manifests in their lifestyles. Indeed, the reported donations of practicing Christians far exceed the average of all U.S. adults and other faith segments, with a mean of $839 given to children in extreme poverty each year.

A majority of those in the pews on any given Sunday (91%) says they’ve given money to church, likely because the tithe and offering are acknowledged or collected regularly, if not weekly. While that doesn’t necessarily equate to a poverty gift, such giving may sometimes be applied to charity and anti-poverty efforts, especially considering that many practicing Christians believe the church has a primary role in addressing global poverty. Further, sizeable majorities of practicing Christians give to missions (75%), local organizations that take care of people in need (70%) and directly to individuals who require assistance (64%). In all categories, practicing Christians outgive their non-practicing peers, and they are 14 percentage points more likely to donate to organizations that address issues overseas.

Evangelicals are also more likely than other faith groups to have donated to a church (93%), missions organizations (81%) and those in need (72%), showing consistency as a group in whether they give and what they give toward.

Refugee resettlement is the cause Christians are least likely to financially invest in. This is interesting considering that, since 2016, Barna’s data indicates a remarkable softening in Americans’ ideas toward refugees, across most faith groups as well: Among practicing Christians alone, the percentage of those who agree the U.S. should welcome refugees more than doubled in one year (from 16% to 36%).27 However, other (perhaps less politically charged) causes continue to consistently draw Christians’ monetary support despite this shift in attitude.

Do Local & Global Poverty Compete for Donations?

When forced to choose among hypothetical options for giving, the majority of U.S. adults says they would prefer designating donations for local child poverty. A higher proportion in 2017 than in 2003 (23% vs. 7%) says the location of the children being helped “wouldn’t matter” to them. Presumably, this group is open to guidance about where an imaginary $100 should go. This change may be related to the reduced proportion who would give to overseas child poverty in 2017 (8% vs. 15%) or to U.S. poverty (64% vs. 74%).

Beyond this hypothetical survey scenario, nothing keeps U.S. adults from giving to multiple issues or the same issue in multiple locations. Survey results show in a few dimensions that practicing Christians particularly do not see fighting poverty as a zero-sum game, where either American or overseas children must lose.

In other words, there does not seem to be a tradeoff between interest in global poverty and in local poverty. Those who rank global poverty as a priority are more likely to also prioritize local poverty (92%) than those who don’t see global poverty as important (74%). In fact, those who say personal action on global poverty is more important are also likely to see every other social issue Barna asked about as important, and their actions in giving and service often follow suit.

A motif emerges—one that is foundational to this report, and explored more in the infographic on page 54—that caring about global poverty means caring about other issues. The beautiful reality is that interest and investment in the fight against global poverty cultivate a generous outlook toward many social issues. The more you care, the more you care.

Volunteering for Poverty

Over the course of a year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that a quarter of Americans over 16 years old (25%) volunteers.28 Along these lines, a January 2017 Barna poll shows that almost a quarter of U.S. adults (23%) reports volunteering at church within the past week, and 29 percent report volunteering to help a nonprofit other than a church.

The likelihood that someone chooses to be a volunteer seems to increase with age, which could be aided by having more opportunity, connections or simply free time as one grows older. This may seem surprising given that the previous chapter illustrated the high levels of compassion and concern among Millennials, but there is some evidence that younger generations’ support tends to be more theoretical at this point. (For a typology of poverty mindsets and actions, see page 61.) Senior generations in the Barna poll are more likely than younger ones to volunteer in churches. Three in 10 Boomers (30%) and more than a quarter of Elders (27%) say they volunteer at a church, compared to 16 percent of Millennials and one in five Gen X (21%). This tracks well with Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2015, which finds Americans ages 35–54 are the most likely age group to volunteer (28%), while Millennials (in that report, a group of adults ages 20-24) are least likely (18% report volunteering the past 12 months).29




Concern for the local poor and concern for the global poor are
not mutually exclusive Barna’s study shows that empathy has few restrictions; involvement in one cause correlates with an open heart for many causes


Pastors, in what ways do your sermons or programs nurture the compassion of those you influence?


Books have been shown to engender empathy in readers Perhaps your whole church, small group or book club could devote time to a reading list—including novels or memoirs that expose people to other cultures, as well as faith-based guides—centered on accounts of poverty or generosity.


For this particular study about poverty, Barna asked people a series of questions on volunteering. Analysts categorized these responses to identify various levels of volunteer engagement—high, medium and low—and shed light on the relationship between those who volunteer at all and those who volunteer with the intention of resisting poverty.

Though many American adults volunteer in some capacity, a small, benevolent segment of the population takes on the majority of that work. Barna finds that action against poverty is concentrated among a group of highly active volunteers. Those who are already likely to volunteer are most likely to volunteer with an organization to help the poor in other countries. Highly engaged volunteers account for just one in 10 of all respondents (10%) in the survey—yet they make up 61 percent of those who volunteer for a global organization helping the poor. Looking at it another way, 81 percent of highly engaged volunteers have volunteered for a global organization helping the poor. By comparison, roughly one-fifth of moderately engaged volunteers (21%) and just 2 percent of low-engagement volunteers report the same. There is a healthy link between volunteering to help people in general and showing an active interest in addressing global poverty specifically.

Volunteering Habits of Christians

Faith affiliation of any kind seems to foster a willingness to give of one’s time for charitable causes. Barna finds that adherents of religions other than Christianity are slightly more likely than self-identified Christians and those who do not affiliate with any faith to volunteer. Four in 10 of those of other faiths (40%) volunteer for a non-profit in a given week, compared to one in four Christians (28%) and one-third of those of no faith (32%) who do the same. Looking specifically at volunteering for U.S. poverty, Christians (26%) and other religious people (23%) volunteer at a similar rate, topping that of non-religious adults (18%). This trend continues, though with lower engagement, when addressing global poverty; 15 percent of Christians, 13 percent of those of other faiths and 9 percent of non-religious people have taken part in that type of volunteer work.

A contrast also emerges when dividing all self-identified Christians into practicing and non-practicing groups. Practicing Christians are consistently more generous not only with their money, but with their hours. Weekly volunteering is reported by one in three practicing Christians (33%), compared to 27 percent of non-practicing Christians. About a quarter (24%) has volunteered specifically to combat global poverty, as opposed to one in 10 non-practicing Christians (10%). In their own community, practicing Christians more often report bringing food to a family in need (75% vs. 55% have done so in the past 12 months), directly donating goods other than money to people who are financially poor (72% vs. 61%) and volunteering to help the poor (47% vs. 27%).

This may relate to opportunities that churches provide for volunteering. If practicing Christians are, by definition, spending more time in church, it’s reasonable that they’d have more knowledge of local and global needs, as well as chances to participate in projects or campaigns that need volunteers. For example, in Barna and Thrivent Financial’s study on generosity, 59 percent of Christian churchgoers say their church gave them opportunities to provide services such as meals or building houses.30

Service & Missions Trips

Travel for service projects, such as short-term missions trips, is relatively rare, confirming that Americas’ role in global anti-poverty work is still primarily as benefactor. Only 6 percent say they have traveled outside the U.S. to serve the poor or unfortunate in the past year.

A sense of individual responsibility to combat poverty is common among those who have actually gone overseas to serve, suggesting that many of those with this conviction are making a concerted effort to practice what they preach, or that those who have already traveled and seen firsthand the devastating reality of poverty return home with great personal commitment. Onefifth of those who place global poverty in their top three social concerns (20%) and 30 percent of those who believe they can personally have a major impact in poverty alleviation have also served those who are poor abroad. Those who have traveled outside the U.S. to serve the poor or disadvantaged (95%) or volunteered at all for global poverty (89%) are also highly likely to have donated for global poverty.

Despite the seeming emphasis on short-term missions opportunities in and through churches— in a previous Barna study conducted with Thrivent Financial, 40 percent of churchgoing Christians say their churches encourage people to join missions trips31—just 10 percent of practicing Christians have embarked on a service trip. Even so, this is still much higher—three times more, in fact—than the percentage of those with no faith who have gone abroad to work against poverty (3%).

How Demographics
Affect Engagement 

Though many U.S. adults are involved in anti-poverty efforts, there are differences in involvement based on ethnicity, income, ideology, gender and more.

Personal prosperity has a mixed effect on an inclination to fight poverty, and prosperity itself is strongly tied to demographics in the U.S. For instance, white Americans have a higher socioeconomic status than black or Hispanic Americans. Men typically earn and own more than women do.32 Wealthy people are more likely to marry, and married people are wealthier.33 Boomers are wealthier than Millennials. And, to further complicate the picture, these different factors interact with each other, sometimes mitigating or exaggerating each other’s effects.

Generally speaking, the further one is from poverty, the more likely one is to financially address it—even though, as the report previously mentioned, prosperous Americans are less likely to prioritize anti-poverty action. This may be one strong example of how concern and action are not necessarily synonymous. (For more on this practical approach to support, see Barna’s poverty action types on page 61.) In this study, people in the wealthier groups, on average, are more likely to report giving. Do they have some ethical sense that, as Luke 12:48 states, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return?” It’s unclear whether having more money enables them to act on long-held generosity or if their giving priorities have altered with their context or increased means.



Pastors, what is your current approach to missions and education experiences for your church? How often does your church provide opportunities to travel and serve the poor? Are you publicly sharing the enthusiasm and insight of those who have participated in such trips?

If your ministry hasn’t yet, select one church in a poor region to partner with for the long term. This might include not only sending congregants on service trips, but also inviting those partners to visit your church. Group sponsorship of children living in the same area is another way to cultivate a church-wide connection to a single place.

Socioeconomic status also has some influence on the amount of time people give; people with lower incomes—less than $50,000 a year—report lower rates of volunteering than those with higher incomes (63% did not volunteer in the past month, vs. 50% earning $50,000–$99,999 and 48% earning $100,000 or more).

However, this order—of greater wealth and a greater inclination to give and serve—does not hold along some demographic divisions, particularly ethnicity. Notably, black Americans—the least wealthy ethnic group in the U.S.34—are more likely than white Americans to donate to individuals in need (56%), churches (56%), social justice issues (28%) and refugee resettlement organizations (19%). It’s possible that black Americans, likely more acquainted with poverty themselves, often channel their empathy into action. Indeed, one study found that personal exposure to poverty may inspire personal involvement: People in neighborhoods affected by poverty are more disposed to donating, whether they are poor or wealthy, while wealthy people who live in wealthy neighborhoods are less so.35 Additionally, various studies have shown that the poorest 20 percent of Americans give relatively more of their income.36 An up-close, in-person awareness of humanity’s needs proves to be a vital catalyst in meeting the needs of others, regardless of one’s own resources.

On only one of the donation opportunities listed are white Americans significantly more likely to engage; 66 percent, compared to 54 percent of nonwhite Americans, have given to local organizations, food banks or shelters. They are equally as likely to give to medical aid / research and religious organizations as non-white Americans.



The numbers show that ethnic minorities in the U .S . are some of the most fervent, consistent advocates for the materially poor, in the U .S . and abroad—pointing to yet another reason the Church is strengthened by intentional diversity on leadership teams and in the pews.

How often is your church being led
by and listening to minority voices? Is your missions work a truly multicultural effort?

For most causes, including global poverty or children in extreme poverty, age has little to no impact on an adult’s willingness to donate money. Generational engagement does vary, though, on issues that could be seen as spiritually or politically charged, perhaps because of younger generations’ increasingly liberal and decreasingly religious affiliation. For instance, Elders favor giving to Christian churches (56% vs. 38% of Millennials), while Millennials are the generation most likely to want to financially support refugee resettlement (20% vs. 5% of Elders).


Considering what people tell Barna they’d like to learn about poverty, churches may want to

  • distribute fact sheets about the state of poverty
  • allow donors and volunteers to publicly reflect on their experiences
  • ask an expert to compile ideas for action in a pamphlet or e-book
  • share stats, articles or stories about global poverty through social media accounts
  • design a spot on the ministry’s site devoted to details about the church’s impact

Who Do People Trust On Poverty?

The foundation of poverty engagement—before anybody ever donates a dollar, signs up as a volunteer or boards a plane—begins with awareness. On an issue as complex, widespread and urgent as poverty, levels and types of engagement are inevitably linked to the quality of the information people receive about scarcity in the U.S. and abroad. In the first chapter we covered how few Americans have an accurate assessment of current poverty levels, so it’s worth asking, from whom or what are they learning? Which individuals, institutions and sources do they look to as leaders on poverty?

When actively seeking information on poverty, U.S. adults start with looking for basic information (71%). More than half (53%) want to know ideas for implementation, while 46 percent are looking for success stories from the field. The practical emphasis continues: 37 percent look for actual resources, and 28 percent hope to find ways to join in. Though only a fifth of all adults (19%) is interested in learning about a Christian perspective on poverty, evangelicals and practicing Christians are predictably more intrigued by biblical perspectives (59%) and accounts of the Church’s actions against poverty so far (45%).

In terms of the sources that people trust, U.S. adults, including practicing Christians, place a high level of trust in those with first-hand experience with poverty. Significant majorities of U.S. adults (89%) and practicing Christians (92%) say they would “definitely” or “probably” give credence to the opinions of someone who has worked in addressing poverty. Equal percentages (88% of U.S. adults; 92% of practicing Christians) would trust someone who has personally lived in and been touched by poverty.

Individuals also play a pivotal role in disseminating their knowledge of or mindsets about poverty within their immediate spheres of influence. Close friends (86%) and family members (83%) have at least some sway with a majority of Americans, including practicing Christians (88% for each), in poverty discussions.

Given that the opinions of more personal connections are clearly so valued, and that Americans now find themselves in an era defined by deinstitutionalization and the “fake news” debate, it’s not a shock that public figures pull little trust on the subject of poverty. This includes groups who are expected to be experts and policy makers, such as reporters and politicians. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (74%) are cautious about politicians’ perspectives on global poverty, including more than a third (35%) who “definitely” don’t trust them. Though most U.S. adults (57%) still trust a journalist at least somewhat on the topic of global poverty, practicing Christians are less likely to do so; more than half (52%) “probably” or “definitely” don’t value reporters’ opinions on global poverty. Sadly, this leaves most U.S. adults and Christians mistrusting subject experts, thought leaders and many of the sources who compile broad information on the topic of global poverty. At the same time, Americans are more likely to say they would put at least some level of trust in most sources than not, indicating that there is room for U.S. adults to accept influence.

The opinions of online influencers or entertainers don’t carry much weight. A majority of U.S. adults says they do not see bloggers (63% “definitely” + “probably” not), celebrities concerned about the cause (58% “definitely” + “probably” not) or public figures they follow on social media (55% “definitely” + “probably” not) as reputable sources on global poverty. However, this could be an example of the tension between, or at least the ignorance about, what people say and what they really do or believe. Other research on the most-trusted Americans is, by definition, made up of celebrities and public figures. For instance, actor Tom Hanks has been selected as the most trusted person in America multiple times.37 And there’s certainly some strategy at work in sending entertainers and artists as goodwill ambassadors to draw attention to poverty around the world.

There is one other figure who inspires high levels of trust, at least on this topic. Among practicing Christians, for whom addressing poverty is inevitably spiritual in nature, the most trusted source on global poverty is in turn a spiritual authority: pastors and faith leaders. Almost all practicing Christians (94%) probably or definitely value their own pastors’ thoughts about global poverty. Evangelicals are particularly trusting; nearly two-thirds (64%) place total confidence in what their pastor has to say about global poverty.

Perhaps this has to do with how much the Bible itself says about poverty; Compassion International identifies more than 2,000 references in the Bible to children, poverty and compassion, which likely make their way into Sunday sermons.38 But a relationship to scripture or church attendance isn’t even required to have faith in pastors on this subject: Among all U.S. adults, pastors are the most trusted source concerning the world’s poor, tied with those who have worked or lived in a poverty environment.

In the next chapter, the data introduces us to the ardent, yet somewhat uncertain, spiritual leaders of the global poverty fight.

The Poverty Action Types

Combinations of theory and practice in global poverty engagement
There is a befuddling gap between the public’s aspiration and action. Though this is sometimes correlated to the income, resources or connections at an individual’s disposal, other factors are also at work. In an effort to examine how various approaches to poverty are formed and persist, Barna identified four types of respondents, grouped by their sense of personal responsibility to address global poverty and their level of support of anti-poverty work.


Unfortunately, the plurality of respondents (33%) qualifies as what Barna refers to as Uninvolved— those who have neither given money ($50 or more in the past year) to combat global poverty nor feel it is important to be personally involved in such efforts. Four of five people in this group (80%) did not give any money for global poverty in the past year. About half (52%) donated toward domestic poverty.

This group, predominantly Boomers (36%) and Gen X (33%), cares less and does less. On no issue included in the survey did they indicate more inclination than the other types to get personally involved, so it’s no surprise that 7 in 10 (69%) have not volunteered in the past month. Uninvolved adults are less likely to believe it is important for them to help with child poverty (77%), child trafficking (75%), local poverty (70%) and economic development in poor countries (50%). This group tends toward conservative (39%) or moderate (45%) ideology. Nearly a fifth of the Uninvolved (17%) is uninspired by the idea of ending poverty in 25 years.

These individuals are inclined to shift responsibility for the world’s poor onto others (50% say it’s “mostly” or “entirely” someone else’s job) and are the type most likely to expect the government of a poor nation to deal with it (49%). It’s possible that a lack of interest in global poverty is associated with a sense of powerlessness to address the issue.

Though a majority (61%) is Christian, this group is less religious than the others, with more than a quarter (26%) saying they have no religion and, of the Christians, most are not practicing (73%). Christians who are Uninvolved don’t regard the involvement or financial investment of the Church as absolutely critical to the cause of poverty, and just more than one in five (22%) sees anti-poverty work as an avenue to better understand the heart of Christ. It makes sense then, that these believers are also very unlikely (10%) to see their lack of care for the poor and vulnerable as a reflection on their Christianity.

Theoretical Supporters

Unlike the Uninvolved, the next group actually prioritizes personal involvement on global poverty—but in theory only. Theoretical Supporters, which make up 28 percent of the sample, are not very likely to spend time or money, even on this issue that they say is important to them. The engagement of this group, often taken up by liberal (36%) or moderate (39%) individuals, could probably be likened to what is now commonly called “slacktivism.” This stereotype is usually applied to Millennials, and they indeed are the most represented age group (40%). Similar percentages of Theoretical Supporters have neither donated to help children in extreme poverty in the last year (71%) nor volunteered in the past month (72%). Of those who did donate something, two-thirds (66%) donated $20 or less. Theoretical Supporters’ giving for domestic poverty (45%) mirrors that of the Uninvolved. However, it should be noted that some of this group may be held back not by apathy but by a lower income—37 percent earn less than $30,000 annually, as opposed to the Uninvolved who are spread a little more widely across tax brackets.

Also like the Uninvolved, they primarily assign poor nations with the responsibility for global poverty (40%), though more than a third (34%) says international non-profits have a key role to play. These respondents tend to be less religious (24% are “nones,” 58% are Christians, 29% are practicing Christians) than the groups who donate more money.

Their lack of embodied concern is even more unfortunate given that more than half of the Christians in this group (53%) believe that aiding the poor could draw people into a deeper understanding of Christ. Less than a quarter (24%) has read an article about the plight of the poor in the past three months, though 58 percent would at least like a better grasp of biblical ideas about poverty.

Practical Supporters

Perhaps the most interesting donor group are those who gave at least $50 to address child poverty over the year, but also say they do not feel personally called to act against global poverty: Practical Supporters. They tend to split the responsibility for global poverty between foreign governments (36%) and international non-profits (28%). Their interest may be more practical and less sentimental, or perhaps their involvement is simply connected to a broader obligation to address needs, rather than an overt concern for poverty. Although the data doesn’t say much about when people give, other research suggests reasons people might donate to causes they don’t believe are essential. Context matters, and many good behaviors (as well as bad ones) are contagious. For example, people tend to give more money when peers with whom they identify in some important way are also giving money.39

As the wealthiest of the poverty action types (39% make more than $75,000 annually), it’s possible this group is often called on to help with funding; they stick to what they do best, while giving generously of their finances and leaving the “work” of reducing poverty to the experts. Fittingly, although many do find time to volunteer for local causes, they are more in sync with Theoretical Supporters when it comes to volunteering for the global poor specifically (11%).

More than four in 10 among this segment (44%) are Boomers, conservatives (40%) or moderates (41%). They donate an average of $673 to children in extreme poverty annually. This smallest of groups (14% of respondents) is also most likely to donate to local organizations, food banks and shelters; a large majority (87%) has.

Practical Supporters are on the religious side; 79 percent are Christians, the highest proportion of all the groups, and more than half (57%) have been to church in the past month. It could be that this faithful group acts on “sacred values.”40 This isn’t to say people never violate sacred values, but when they do so, it is uncomfortable. So if a Christian believes that God wants her to give to the poor, she may not need any other reason to do so. Christians who are Practical Supporters could be further activated in this spiritual, emotional sense; more than half (53%) are at least somewhat interested in learning more about scriptural insights on poverty, and 62 percent (“very” + “somewhat” interested) would like to know how churches should respond to social justice issues. A healthy proportion (44%) thinks that poverty engagement results in a deeper understanding of Christ.

Responsive Supporters

Occasionally, people exhibit an emotional response to poverty and back it up with practical action. This group sees their personal involvement as important, and thus they choose to donate (an amount of at least $50 in the past year). Responsive Supporters make up a quarter of respondents (24%). Overall, they give an average amount of $1,362 to children in extreme poverty annually. In keeping with a theme of Barna’s study—that a general level of concern or action translates to multiple causes—both Responsive and Practical Supporters also donate to domestic poverty at a higher rate than Theoretical Supporters and Uninvolved adults. Six in 10 Responsive Supporters (61%) give toward this issue.

Responsive Supporters are the only type to primarily task international non-profits with handling global poverty (32%), though one in 10 says individual donors should take the lead (10%), more than any other group of supporters. The Responsive group feels a heavy responsibility for ending poverty; one in five (20%) indicates that ending poverty in 25 years is entirely their job, and another 41 percent accept most of the responsibility. Even beyond donations, their habits reflect this conviction; Responsive Supporters are the most active participants in all actions included in the survey, including volunteering to help the poor, whether in the U.S. (48%) or overseas (30%).

More often than not, these compassionate adults are from the Gen X (40%) or Millennial (33%) generations. Responsive Supporters are more evenly distributed by ideology than any of the other action types (38% liberal, 31% conservative, 31% moderate), pointing to some encouraging common ground in political camps.

Responsive Supporters’ activism and optimism appear to bolster each other; they are the group most likely to believe that one person can really make a difference in solving poverty for one child (81% agree at least somewhat) and that ending global poverty in the next 25 years feels possible (63%) or believable (62%). Whole-hearted engagement may depend on a balance of both concern and hope for a particular issue.

It’s possible that religious conviction compels some of their activity; two-thirds of Responsive Supporters (67%) are Christians, and 43 percent are practicing Christians, the highest number among the poverty action types. They are the most active church attenders (68% have been to church in the past month). A majority of these Christians believes that helping the poor in turn helps Christians understand the heart of Christ (58%) and has spent significant time praying for the poor (53%). Forty-four percent of Responsive Christians say that their churches should prioritize spending resources to address poverty in other countries. Christians in this group are also the most eager for information on poverty; eight in 10 are at least somewhat interested in learning more about a biblical perspective on poverty (79%) or hearing about how the Church could be involved (80%).

Christians in both the Responsive and Practical Supporter categories are similarly likely to give to missions organizations (50% and 53%, respectively) and to their churches (59% and 64%, respectively). The same goes for Christians who are Uninvolved or Theoretical Supporters, though in lesser proportions (20% and 21% have given to missions and 33% and 34% have given to churches, respectively). This suggests that there is not a tradeoff between Christian donations toward global poverty and donations to missions—and perhaps undermines a common argument that Christians might hold back on fighting poverty because they first want to address spiritual or evangelistic needs.

Q&A with John Corines

The Power of Personal Giving

John serves as chief operating officer at Generous Giving, a non-profit that seeks to spread the biblical message of generosity. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and speaks regularly at large churches and conferences around the country. He is co-author of the book God and Money. John and his wife, Megan, have three children and reside in Orlando, Florida.

The Psychology Behind Giving Decisions

By Susan Mettes

Who doesn’t have clean water? Usually, someone who is materially poor and lives where the government doesn’t provide many services. In all likelihood, people without clean water have an array of other problems related to poverty. So, why are U.S. adults in this Barna survey more inclined to support clean water initiatives than global poverty alleviation? It may have more to do with human psychology, rather than a lack of concern for the sweeping issue of global poverty. Let’s look at a few factors that research shows often impact decision-making and giving.

Specificity Motivates

Whether or not they know it, the choosy potential donors in this survey may be following some good advice on reaching a big, general, long-term goal. One of the practical applications to come out of decades of research on motivation is SMART goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-specific. The Millennium Development Goals, for example, abide by these standards.

One of these goals was to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.” And we did it— five years ahead of schedule. Now, many charities are working on the Sustainable Development Goals, which call for eradicating extreme poverty everywhere by 2030.43

Cutting big problems down into smaller, more specific problems can be very helpful. Contributing to clean water or literacy may make you feel like you’re tackling a smart (or SMART) goal—something easier to grasp and more motivating than the general idea of fighting global poverty.

The Catalyst of Individual Connections

Our brains also seem wired to want to help more when the act might affect most if not all of the victims.45 This is one component of what researchers have come to call the “identifiable victim effect.”46 When we see an individual suffering—and especially if we believe that individual is not responsible for their bad situation—we are more likely to respond than if we hear about a large, somewhat impersonal grouping of people affected.47 When there’s a tradeoff, people often choose identifiable victims over statistical victims.48 Statistical victims register more like numbers in our brains, regardless of how widespread or severe their circumstances may be. In his 1968 article introducing the identifiable victim effect, Thomas Schelling wrote that an individual’s death causes “anxiety and sentiment, guilt and awe, responsibility and religion, [but]. . . most of this awesomeness disappears when we deal with statistical death.”49

Of course, to identify a victim may require personal exposure to a problem. In a study that showed that people in poor neighborhoods donate relatively more, the identifiable victim effect (and maybe much more) is at play.50

I now live in Burundi, a country where a high percentage of people are extremely poor, and can attest to the power of personal engagement with those touched by poverty. It would be hard not to think of my neighbors when deciding about charity donations in the future.

A Tendency to Normalize

But, history has taught us, exposure to poverty is not all that counts. After all, even a high proportion of dictators comes from humble origins. And we all can likely name someone who sees suffering and blames the victim—or just doesn’t notice. Why does this happen? In part, it is because every human is in danger of getting used to things they should not get used to. This is the psychological principle known as the “hedonic treadmill”—basically, the idea that we acclimate to nearly everything after a while and return to a normal emotional state.51 This can be a benefit when recovering from job loss, disabilities or other big problems—but on the other hand, it can also make us callous to the trauma or trials of others.

For some reason, being human means caring about specific victims and specific goals. If only those impulses were more strategic! We might reduce poverty more if statistics played on our heartstrings, too. I don’t necessarily believe that impulses like the identifiable victim effect are tendencies we should resist in the name of efficiency; scripture tells us that Jesus also felt the waves of compassion when personally and specifically confronted with needs (see Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14 or Luke 7:13). And, after all, it’s the Creator, not any individual, who can fully bear the weight of all the pain and all the statistics in the world. But there is something we should resist: getting used to poverty, near or far.

Susan Mettes
Research analyst

Susan holds degrees from Northwestern University (BA) and Duke University (MPP) . She is an editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine, after having worked there as international editor from 2006–2009 . Her work history includes positions at Thrivent Financial and Duke University, where she researched topics such as behavioral economics and church life . She has done writing and research for the Barna Group, Gates Foundation, World Vision and Dan Ariely at the Center for Advanced Hindsight . Currently, she lives in Burundi with her husband.

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01 Perceptions of Poverty

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03 The Pastor's Role

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