I’ve been engaged in a Facebook discussion tangent recently about the old debate over whether “government” (meaning us, collectively) or “the church” should bear more responsibility for taking care of “the poor” (meaning people with low incomes). I put all those things in scare quotes because it is not always clear what we are talking about when using those words. Here is an edited version of how I responded:
I’d recommend Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers for anyone interested in poverty and development issues. Myers is former VP of WorldVision, and brings a great synthesis of theology and policy analysis into his study of poverty and what he calls “Transformational development.”
The taxes versus charity argument about whether “government” or “the church” should help the poor is not compelling to me. Churches do some kinds of aid very well. We typically return an economic benefit to our local community that is many, many times our budget. We multiply dollars with volunteer hours and give a spiritual boost to the neighborhoods where we locate. It’s called “the halo effect” and you can read more about it here. Some Europeans from countries with state-sponsored churches who visit the States are astonished that we do all that we do without government aid, relying solely on donations.
But many kinds of church aid are not as efficient as government aid. When we do a can drive, for example, we are burning gasoline to go to the store to buy food that has been stocked on shelves (at significant labor costs) and warehoused for retail. Our distribution networks make us feel good, but they are not efficient. What the church excels at is person-to-person relationship building. The kind of development that needs to happen to reduce poverty happens best when churches are intentional about connecting people across economic and racial lines, which they cannot do as long as they are segregated by neighborhoods, class, and race. This is less about money that we give away than face time that we spend in coming along side those who are struggling, simply learning to be with each other and loving each other. When you consider the huge amount of wasted potential and human capital that poor people spend on being poor—difficulty transporting themselves, missing work because they are sick, or getting caught in the cycle of predatory lending—it boggles the mind why we consider it *not* in our best interest to help them through government assistance. The amount of GDP wasted by poor people on what could go to benefit society is staggeringly high. Why is building roads for car owners and shipping goods in our collective best interest, but providing public transportation and public education is not? Should TVA’s development of power in the rural Southeast U.S. have been left up to the churches? Should churches provide fire and police protection as well?
While I take seriously our imperative to do all the good we can to all the people we can in all the ways we can, the church is called to represent the Kingdom of God. I can’t help but wonder if the devil’s strategy is to keep us Christians perpetually busy with cleaning up his messes and dealing with his casualties so that we don’t have time to confront his wickedness head-on. You may have heard the saying “Charity is pulling people out of a river; justice is stopping others from throwing them in.” But there’s also a large number of idle bystanders who will criticize any attempt to do either as meddling or being political. And the people doing the shoving will naturally tell us to mind our business.
Churches can do some things to help the poor, but we cannot build parks, provide public transportation, health care, and education to everyone. It is true that we have done a marvelous job building hospitals and founding colleges and working at peace-making across the globe. But many of those hospitals and universities are now sucking the life out of poor people because they are caught in the same sinful self-destructive systems as our banking and insurance institutions.
The people who are loudest about shifting the responsibility for the poor from government to the churches are people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, neither of whom tithe, according to their tax records, but only give the American average: 2%. This kind of hypocrisy makes me livid. Folks who think churches can curtail poverty or do community development by providing soup kitchens and clothes closets are the people who have no understanding of poverty because they do not live with it. Nearly anyone who works with Christian nonprofit ministry among the poor will tell you that government—the financial and social priorities we set through our own political action—has to have a role in reducing poverty. Shifting the costs of poverty onto the backs of the financially poor only makes it more inefficient and expensive for everyone. When people use the ER for their primary care, when they miss work because of illness or transportation issues, when they lack time to parent their own kids, we all lose. Costs go up for all of us. At least, costs go up for 99% of us. Those at the top live in their own world.
The fact is, most people DO have intrinsic motivation to work and better their lives. Dependency and energy conservation (i.e. “laziness”) usually happens when people are repeatedly knocked on their duff, which is what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” It’s amazing how much harder people work when they have savings, food and health security, and hope for the future.
I’ve been qualifying my use of the phrase “the poor,” because it only describes one sort of financial poverty. Myers points out that there is also social poverty, political poverty, health poverty, and spiritual poverty. We are a nation that has become contemptuous of the financially poor because we ourselves are spiritually poor. We are alienated from each other and from the God who calls us to a different kind of life:
For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. (Revelation 3:17-19)