'Suffer the Children'
Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A with Professor Gary S. Smith and his wife, Jane Smith, about their new book, “Suffer the Children: How We Can Help Improve the Lives of the World’s Impoverished Children.”
V&V: Gary and Jane, this is your first book together. Gary, this book is quite a departure from your recent books on faith and the presidency. What prompted the two of you to take on this subject?
Smith: Our varied personal experiences — my part-time pastorate in a poor community, our service as foster parents, short-term mission trips, and Jane’s advocacy for children and work to combat human trafficking — led us to write “Suffer the Children.” As certified foster parents, our longest placement was with African-American siblings: A 5-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother. We have participated in short-term mission trips at home and abroad: To inner-city Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Mississippi (after Hurricane Katrina), Greenville, North Carolina, Romania, and Belize.
For several years, Jane served as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate (CASA) in our county. She worked closely with children under state care and served as their voice in the courts. Jane has also fought human trafficking for the past 15 years as a researcher for Stop Child Trafficking Now in New York City and as an activist. She has written op-eds, done radio interviews, given talks to church and community groups, spoken with legislators in Washington, and created a local organization to combat contemporary slavery.
Especially important in sensitizing us to the plight of poor children was the five years we served on the board of the Christian Assistance Network (CAN), an organization that helps individuals and families in our area with financial emergencies. CAN has aided hundreds of people, including many children, by paying for medications, car repairs, and home repairs. It has also kept many families from being evicted from their apartments or from having their heat and lights shut off. Our work taught us much about the problems, frustrations, and hopes of poor parents and children whose life stories are often heart-breaking. All these experiences convinced us that we should and can do more to help the world’s impoverished children.
Finally, we were inspired by biblical teachings and prudential considerations to write our book. More than 1,000 biblical verses accentuate God’s passionate concern for justice and exhort us to provide just political, economic, and social arrangements and practices. Almost 400 biblical passages express God’s passionate concern for widows, orphans, aliens, the homeless, the hungry, the disabled, the sick, and the vulnerable. The Bible commands us to aid the indigent. Those who are “gracious to the needy” honor God (Prov. 14:31). “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).
We also recognized that by aiding indigent children, we can reduce their suffering and enable them to develop their God-given potential and that doing so will save nations money in the long run. The lower economic output resulting from inadequately prepared workers and the higher welfare payments and criminal justice expenses connected with destitution are much more expensive than eradicating child poverty.
V&V: So how bad is the problem? What are the chief problems that poor children face in today’s world?
Smith: Today about 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger, and about 160 million children under the age of 5 are stunted in their physical development. In the United States 14.7 million children live in poverty and another 6.5 million live in extreme poverty. Almost 20 percent of American children live in households whose members often do not have enough to eat. Moreover, growing up in poverty has very detrimental physical, intellectual, and psychological impacts on children.
The primary problems afflicting poor children and their families around the world are hunger, the lack of clean water, disease, substandard housing, deficient parenting, inadequate education, gangs, insecure property rights, police corruption, ineffective and unjust judicial systems, human trafficking, and the shortcomings of child welfare systems.
V&V: Given these immense problems, is the situation hopeless?
Smith: No. Thankfully, major progress is occurring. In 1980, half the people in the developing world lived in extreme poverty; today only 20 percent of them do. The illiteracy of adults worldwide has dropped from more than 50 percent in 1950 to 16 percent today. Fewer children are starving to death or dying of disease now than ever before, and a significantly higher percentage of children are attending school.
In “Suffer the Children” we discuss potential solutions for child poverty — improving parenting, adoption practices, foster care, childcare, and education; increasing child sponsorship; providing more jobs and raising the wages of workers; reforming the child welfare system; and abolishing human trafficking. We analyze various ways to help children (and their families) in developing nations, including increasing microfinance, combating disease, supplying uncontaminated water, and reducing violence. We feature the stories of individuals who have overcome child poverty, organizations and programs that are alleviating poverty, and interviews with practitioners who are having a tremendous impact. We discuss what many congregations, parachurch and secular organizations, politicians, government programs, and businesses are doing to improve the quality of life for the world’s impoverished children
V&V: So what can individuals who are concerned about helping destitute children do?
Smith: Because the problem appears to be so massive, it is easy to throw up our arms in despair and conclude that individuals can do nothing to help. However, we can help in many ways. In our book, we discuss the importance of praying faithfully, studying diligently, giving generously, living modestly, volunteering enthusiastically, investing and shop prudently, supporting candidates who strive to promote justice and eliminate poverty, advocating passionately, and working to reform social structures. Our book and its accompanying website provide many examples of inspiring individuals who are assisting indigent children as well as resources to educate people who want to help. You can play simulations, do exercises, watch videos, and peruse the websites of the organizations whose work most interests you to increase your knowledge about indigent children and enhance your desire and ability to help them. Together, we can make a difference.
Jane Marie Smith served for 15 years as the Coordinator of Instruction/Government Documents Librarian at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. She has worked to end human trafficking as a researcher and as an activist.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He is the author or editor of 11 books including “Religion in the Oval Office (2015) and Heaven in the American Imagination (2011).