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Monday, August 21, 2006


The Politics of Poverty

posted by Dignan at Monday, August 21, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
A friend of mine from church recently sent me an article by Bill McKibben entitled "The Christian Paradox" that was published in Harpers last summer. After reading the article, I realized that I have read many similar articles over the past couple of years. The gist of the article is that while most Americans claim to be Christians, they don't appear to be following Christ's commands, particularly as it relates to caring for the poor.

This premise is central to the Religious Left's critique of our culture, as often expressed by people such as Jim Wallis or Ron Sider.

Of course many on the Religious Right counter that laissez-faire capitalism is the only way to provide for the poor.

Both groups are wrong and I am going to take this opportunity to show why.

The Religious Left's Case on Poverty
Bill McKibben gets to the heart of the issue by asking this question:
"What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?"
Bill then provides the answer:
"In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention."
Jim Wallis echoed many of these thoughts in a press conference last year calling for a "moral budget":
“As this moral battle for the budget unfolds, I am calling on members of Congress, some of whom make much out of their faith, to start some bible studies before they cast votes to cut food stamps, Medicaid, child care and more that hurt the weakest in our nation. The faith community is drawing a moral line in the sand against these priorities. I call on political leaders to show political will in standing up for ‘the least of these,’ as Jesus reminds us to do.”
A common refrain from the Religious Left is that the federal government is the primary dispenser of charity and that the amount of or lack of federal funding directed at poverty is a prime indication of our morality as a people and nation.

I believe that there are a number of problems with this approach ranging from the practical to the spiritual.

Middleman Politics
Almost all industries have realized over the past couple of decades that the idea of removing the middleman is an attractive idea. Most people have come to realize that middlemen in business processes often serve little interest other than their own in creating friction in order to make money. This isn't to say that all middlemen are bad or are not valuable, but I believe that there is a cost involved in using middlemen.

As it relates to poverty reduction, government fills the role of the middleman. And no middleman in all of history has created more friction and additional cost than the federal government. Non-profit charities are often rated by their ability to direct the highest percentage possible of donated funds to those in need. The higher the administrative costs are, the less money goes to those the charity intends to help.

If the federal government was rated in the same manner, it would fail tremendously. A tremendous portion of money raised (i.e. taxes) for those in need (i.e. welfare recipients) actually goes to pay the salaries of government employees, retirement accounts, an unreal amount of office space, etc. If the US federal government actually were a non-profit charity, it would be on the cover of Time magazine for defrauding its donors.

Coercion is not charity
I think that most Christians would agree that more should be done to help the poor and oppressed. I believe that it is disingenuous for the Religious Left to suggest that true Christian charity involves the government.

The Religious Left is completely correct when they say that Christians are commanded to help the poor. I could document all of the references in the Bible that talk about helping the poor but I would run out of room. It is absolutely clear that Christians are commanded to give charity to those in need.

However....government aid is not charity. Let me repeat: government aid is not charity. It doesn't even have the ability to be charity.

By its very nature, government is coercive. That it, it has the power of the sword to command people to action. Almost everything the government does comes with the implication that if one goes against the government, they will be forcibly made to do as the government requires. It doesn't make sense for the Religious Left to speak of helping the poor by the country giving more. It is too easy to be generous with other people's money.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't sound like charity to me. Forcibly taking money from some to give to others? If you boil down government aid to its root, this is what you have. While Christians are certainly commanded to "render unto Caesar", I can see no justification whatsoever that helping the poor involves taking from others by force.

Missing the point
I was thinking about this issue a few months ago and realized that there is a paradox going on here. On one hand, Jesus Christ commands Christians to help the poor. Yet Jesus also says that "the poor will always be with you."

I suppose that there are some who would use this latter reference as an excuse to do nothing to help the poor. But I think most would agree that this isn't the case. But isn't it fruitless to try to end poverty since Jesus said that we would always have poor among us?

This made me think that there is more to this than is on the surface. Why would Jesus ask people to do something that he knew they would fail at?

I believe that Jesus intended great good to occur in more than one way when he commanded Christians to help the poor. Not only did he want to see actual physical suffering alleviated, but I believe that he knew that great spiritual good would come to both those helping the poor and the poor themselves through the actions of charity.

Ask anyone who has spent time working in a soup kitchen or building a house for the homeless and they will tell you how good it made them feel. I don't think that we should be motivated by the promise of feeling good about ourselves, but I don't think there is any denying that great good does come from helping those in need. There also tends to be a relationship between how close we get to those in need and how we feel about our works of charity. Spending time with an inner-city fatherless child can have a tremendous impact upon our lives in addition to the positive impact on the child's life. However, in those cases where we simply give money to a charity (still a laudable action), the impact upon us and those in need is lessoned.

So how much are we missing when we delegate charity to the government? How easy does it then become to avoid the poor and avoid getting messy with other people's lives? How easy do it become for the poor to resent those better off in society that they have little interaction with? How easy does it become for some to foment class warfare?

The Religious Right's Case on Poverty
To this point, I have focused on how the Religious Left approaches the issue of poverty. But the Religious Right certainly hasn't gotten this issue correct either.

Those on the Right generally argue that free-market capitalism is the only way to address poverty. Many say that we should simply end all government aid and that private organizations such as churches will take over. I earlier accused the Religious Left of being disingenuous, but at this point the Religious Right outdoes them. Does anyone actually believe this? If this were the case, wouldn't we have already seen a tremendous reduction in those living in poverty?

Two things have occurred to free-market capitalism that is hampering its ability to care for the poor.

Much that passes for capitalism these days isn't. In fact, capitalism has often become corporatism. That is, instead of an economic system based upon freedom, we have moved towards an economic system set up for the benefit of large corporations.

I could write a book on all the ways we as a society give money to large corporations. While I have nothing against big business per se, I am baffled at how we as a society have gone to great lengths to subsidize large businesses through tax breaks, various business incentives, and the like. While I don't think that direct government aid to the poor is a good solution, it is far better than plowing money into big business.

One thing that many proponents of capitalism often forget is the origins of capitalism. It is often forgotten that the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher who wrote almost as much regarding ethics as he did on economics. Smith conceived of free-market economics taking place in an environment filled with exhortations and expectations of morality.

While "The Wealth of Nations" is a much better known work today, Adam Smith's "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments" is what made his career. In this book, Smith argued that ethics didn't derive from law or rational thought, but that people were born naturally with a moral sense. It was this moral sense that acted as a restraint upon the baser impulses of man to exploit others in an economic system.

Unfortunately, many proponents of capitalism, especially libertarians, have forgotten these origins of the system. Too often capitalism is presented as simply the working out of people's self-interest. This ultra-individualistic approach is doomed to fail.

So what is the answer? How should the Religious Left and Religious Right approach the issue of poverty?

One would hope that those on the Left and Right could put down their "culture war" weapons and spend time, money, and resources giving sacrificially to those in need to the point that there was little left for the government to do. I would love to see broad coalitions put aside their differences to tackle the issue of poverty.


Hey Dignan -

This is a good post. You certainly cover the high points of both views.

Here is how I see it.

The first thing I want to say is that I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. Accordingly, I do not hold government to be accountable to the teachings of Christ, Muhammed, Buddha, Moses, or any other religious figure. Government has other responsibilities.

The second thing I want to say is that transfer payments made to fellow members of a civic community for the purposes of alleviating hunger, poor housing, lack of medical care, etc., is not charity. People who live in the same town, state, nation, or in fact world form a community. Communities are predicated on mutual responsibility and accountability, or they are not communities at all. When bad times hit, you are in fact obligated to help others, not out of charity or the goodness of your heart, but because that obligation is part of what it means to be fellow-citizens.

Government fits in here because the factors that give rise to poverty and its related ills are not exclusively, or even primarily, private. They emerge, as much as anything else, from large scale economic and social effects.

Government is, as it happens, one of the few institutions with both the means and inclination to step up to situations like this. When an entire industry goes offshore, or when an entire region is affected by natural disaster or ill effects of weather, or when the cost of crucial resources goes through the roof, public initiatives to ameliorate the resulting pain are both reasonable and warranted.

Couple of other points:

I don't think the teaching of Christ is that you should help others because it will give you a spiritual boost. I think the teaching is that you should help others, full stop.

Involving government in addressing poverty and related problems by no means eliminates opportunities to help others as your conscience directs. There's always plenty to do. And, eliminating the participation of government is unlikely to inspire folks who are disinclined to lend a hand to do so.

Regarding middlemen, pretty much any intervention you care to participate in beyond the level of buying somebody lunch is going to involve a middleman. In my experience, government is a not-bad middleman, not quite as good as some others, but much, much better than many.

Thanks -


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