In all, more than 260,000 Hoosier children — enough to fill the RCA Dome nearly five times — live below the poverty level. Indiana’s poverty rate for 2005 was 12.2 percent, an increase of more than 88,000 people and the third consecutive annual increase, according to census data released Tuesday.

It’s hard to believe that in the wealthiest country in the world we have a poverty problem at all. Many of us may be broke, but have little to no idea what true poverty is. The problem is that we as a society like to sweep the poor under the rug. Poverty is a reality, often leading to, and breeding, a cauldron of pain, anger, poverty, and injustice, where people live in conditions with limited opportunity, limited education and limited means.

It’s easy to blame the poor. They are under-represented. There aren’t many political action committees, few professional lobbying, publicists in the media on their behalf. Sadly, we hear more about Tom Cruise’s latest plights than we do about the poor, here or abroad. Let’s face it, because this is the land of opportunity, often times poverty is a choice, the natural consequence of a lifetime of poor decisions. However, that doesn’t address the systemic poverty, the children born into circumstances beyond their control.

There is a poverty of responsibility. The surest routes out of poverty are education and forming two parent family units. We have a culture that undervalues education, taking for granted not only the opportunities it affords, but also the struggles it took to ensure equal education for all.

The rise in poverty underscores yet again the necessity of improving schools, finding ways to retain more students and persuading Hoosiers of the priceless value of education. A good education remains the best escape route out of poverty. But, year after year, about three out of 10 Indiana students who entered high school as freshmen fail to graduate as seniors. The consequences, for individuals and society, are dire.

Our responsibility is to value education. We have a history as scientists, artists, business people, and explorers. More than being athletes, entertainers or drug dealers, education is the best sure route out of poverty.

There is a poverty of values. Though there had always been poverty, we had managed to keep our families relatively intact and thrive. The inability to keep it in our pants and close our legs points to individual failings. Again, as a society, we’ve given up on teenagers. Yes, they are at an “age of accountability,” where they are responsible for their own decisions, but out message to them is “you’re going to do it anyway” and we throw up our hands in the face of it.

However, because we have no clear message on what to teach them (we say abstain, but give few good reasons why; we say practice safe sex, against disease and pregnancy, essentially letting chimpanzees play with nuclear weapons), we are stunned by the societal consequences.

There’s only so much that throwing money at this problem can do

There is a poverty of caring. Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” This is an American dogma, not a biblical one. We need better, more comprehensive strategies for dealing with poverty, but just telling people to “bootstrap”is BS and elitist: pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is great, if you have boots. Especially in a system of oppression with people who have nothing and may possibly have never in their lives. The government does have a role to play. In spending on education. In supporting the working poor.

However, this goes beyond the government and its limited resources. It points to our attitude as a culture. We, as individuals, have the poor all around us. We choose how to handle them and what we mostly choose to do is ignore them. Or move away from them, and let them be someone else’s problem.

I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you.” Jesus’ story is the story of poverty: God humbling himself, becoming poor and weak. Human. In order to free the oppressed from poverty and powerlessness. Becomes a victim in our place (at the hands of a corrupt justice system no less) and transforms the condition of bondage. That doesn’t mean we get to simply quit caring about the poor.