Why are Some Americans Poor?

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on August 6, 2017

The Washington Post ran a story last week about Christians and poverty. The article reports that “Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.”

Many Christians are wary of a national government so powerful it creates cycles of dependence and so invasive that it more or less runs people’s lives. That wariness deserves to be better understood.

The Welfare Trap

First, federal efforts to reduce poverty over the past 50 years have backfired. Yes, they’ve provided basic needs and helped some people out of economic distress.

But they have also created a culture of dependency on government. When your housing, medical expenses, food, and education are paid for by Uncle Sam, it’s hard to find the initiative to move ahead.

Federal policy has also corroded the institution of marriage. If a man and woman know that government will provide for the basic needs of a mother and child, the incentive to be promiscuous increases. As Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector wrote in 2014:

When the War on Poverty began in 1964, only seven percent of children were born to unmarried women. However, over the next four-and-a-half decades the share of non-marital births exploded. In 2013, 41 percent of all children born in the U.S. were born outside marriage.

Rector also notes that of the percent of families classified as poor in 1964, 36 percent were headed by single parents. Now, that percentage is about 70 percent.

How does all this relate to Christians and poverty? Many Evangelicals look at the shriveled, sour fruit of the welfare state and recoil from it. This is not a matter of blaming the poor but of taking seriously the Bible’s teaching about human nature. We’re crippled by our sin and limited by finiteness. So, if someone offers us a free lunch — even if it’s meager and unappetizing — we tend to take it.

So it is with welfare.

A Culture of Responsibility

Second, most Evangelicals are taught from their youth that all persons are accountable to God for their actions and obligated to obey Him. Theirs is a culture of responsibility.

This transfers into their general approach to life. I have attended various kinds of Evangelical churches all my life. Obedience to the will of God as found in Scripture is foundational to the Evangelical vision of life and culture. Since one of the major emphases of discipleship is, of course, to be like Jesus, we’re taught to consider what He did and taught. Not only was He a skilled laborer. He also encouraged and modeled moral responsibility before God, family and society.

We need a compassion deep enough to be tempered by a desire to encourage personal responsibility.

Many Evangelicals know this in their bones. When they see people receive what they perceive is a government-supported lifestyle, they reject it. And when they observe people whose decisions about substance abuse, sexual self-restraint, and employment reflect poor moral and practical judgment, they have compassion. But it’s a compassion deep enough to be tempered by a desire to encourage personal responsibility.

All of this dovetails with the Bible’s teachings about the causes of poverty. They boil down to two things: injustice and laziness.

Injustice

From the earliest pages of Scripture, the mistreatment of the poor is seen as an offense to God. “You shall do no injustice in court,” Moses tells the people of Israel. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).

“Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16) writes Solomon. A few verses later, the wise king tells us, “Do not rob the poor or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them” (22:22-23).

“Thus says the Lord,” cries Jeremiah, “’Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed’.” (22:3).

Economic injustice can take many forms. It can be personal, like underpaying an employee or overcharging a tenant. It can be racial, as with American slavery. Injustice can be predatory, as with human trafficking. It can be institutional, as denying housing or education or some other social good because of ethnicity or gender.

Laziness

What of laziness? Of those who won’t take responsibility for their lives and earn their own keep?

The Word of God makes clear that He disapproves of indolence. Here are some representative passages:

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (Proverbs 18:9)

The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. (Proverbs 21:25)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (II Thessalonians 3:10)

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (I Timothy 5:8)

No one works harder than a mom with young children or an aged spouse caring for his or her lifetime partner. Their only pay is the privilege of sacrificial love. And there are some people who cannot work due to injury or illness, physical or mental inability.

But, frankly, the latter group are a pretty small minority. Most people, even the home-bound, can do something. The task might be simple and the pay small, but work is work.

Private Charity, Not Government “Welfare”

Finally, as the Post article notes, committed Christians prefer personal and church-based action to help those in need.

Regardless of their beliefs about what makes a person poor, almost everyone who discussed the question with the Post said that their church teaches them to help people who are in need, and that their congregation works hard to apply those teachings. Churches of every denomination and political view run food banks, soup kitchens and shelters.

This is true for thousands of Christian ministries, at home and abroad. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s “ServantMatch” website lists hundreds of ministries. These range from adoption to water purity in the developing world. Concerned believers give generously to these causes and often volunteer in them.

Compassion is just a warm feeling without a desire to offer healthy change. A call to require responsibility is cruel if not motivated by a desire to bring hope and healing.

That’s where Christ comes in: His followers can imitate His compassion and His call to personal responsibility and, thereby, help change countless lives.

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