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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  • Mensa Member

    Who picked the photo for this article? Is there even one white person in the photo? Maybe that one half-hidden guy.

    Millions and millions of America’s poor have jobs. They are working hard! But, thanks to conservative economic policy, the wealth from their labor is making the rich richer.

    One can’t honestly discuss “Why are Some Americans Poor?” without mentioning that.

    Are some poor people lazy, government-enabled, ungrateful louts? Of course. So are some rich people!

    But poor people are often the victim of bad polity.

    To blame them just victimizes them more.

    • Patmos

      Because dependency is such a good thing to advocate.

      Doesn’t surprise me that you’ve fallen for all the Marxist rhetoric. You do after all, proclaim to follow Jesus while simultaneously affirming abominations.

      Dumber that a bag of hammers.

    • Rob Schwarzwalder

      Hello,
      Thank you for your post. Millions are indeed working with limited remuneration and benefits. However, the causes of their modest earnings are more complex than you seem to suggest. I would argue that a freer market and incentive-based economy would help them far more than government intervention.
      Additionally, my purpose in the article was not to offer a comprehensive explanation of poverty but, rather, of the fundamental causes thereof. As I note, the oppression of those in need is an evil, and there can be no doubt that the grim residue of racism and the government’s fostering of dependency augment economic disparities.
      Finally, I do not associate myself with the crass comments of the person who called you names. That is distinctly un-Christian and I’m sorry you had to read it.
      All the best,
      Rob Schwarzwalder

    • tether

      I certainly hope business owners are prospering. Other wise we won’t have jobs for very long. I am proud to work for a successful business owners. That shows that they know how to run their business and I can be somewhat confident that as long as I perform my job well I will have a job in the future.

  • txgal_opine

    The verse quoted for Proverbs 18:9 looks more like the wording for Proverbs 10:4 (KJV)
    He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich.

  • blackfeather

    well….ovomit could have spent the billions in cash that he sent to iran…to help destitute people in our country…but noooo.

    • Emma2

      Well, word from a real Christian. Who doesn’t understand that it is not a virtue to use vulgarity against a president.

      Nor, apparently, does he realize that it’s Congress that holds the purse strings and decides where our tax dollars will be sent.
      Nor that it was G W Bush who started the money train to the middle east. Or that Mr. Obama merely returned Iran’s money, which had been withheld due to some political issue or other, to its rightful owners, who had legal claim on the money.
      It’s sad how so many people twist the facts to suit their own prejudices.

      • Kevin Carr

        Well yes Congress holds the purse strings, in your zeal to blame GWB, under Obama, he had a emocrat Congress that went along with what he wanted. Iran is a state sponsor or terrorism, giving them billions of dollars was a huge “mistake”. Rolling the clock back further, LBJ’s Great Society program has been a disaster, especially for the black community. It was he that said when he signed it into law “I’ll have those n-words voting Democrat for 200 years”. Many people lost ground when they began trusting government more than God.

        • Emma2

          Hm-mmmmmm.

  • Paul

    “When your housing, medical expenses, food, and education are paid for by Uncle Sam, it’s hard to find the initiative to move ahead.”

    Insert ‘extorting your neighbor’.

  • tony

    It’s not just a white christian thing. That is just what the racist, anit-christian left always says. But the world view that says that if your lazy you will be poor, is absolutly biblical and true. The universe dont owe non of you anything. You are the universe, and you owe it! The attacks on white christians are from pwoplw who are not christians themselves. So why would I listen to them? They dont know me.

  • 234559

    Thought provoking.

  • Let’s get right down to theological brass tacks. Some are poor so that others may learn generosity.

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