Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Conservatives and the Least of These

Why Do They Do That? 3 – Poverty

We know the Bible commands us to take care of the poor, “the least of these,” and our neighbor. Moreover, Christians want to take care of them. Shouldn’t we, then, support efforts to create federal social programs to provide money and other necessities to the less fortunate?

No. For a variety of reasons.

Before getting into those reasons, though, let me state again that the issue is not whether to help the poor but how. Liberals and conservatives alike have plans they believe are best for the needy; somebody’s wrong. I hope to convince you that it is the liberal approach that is in error.

What’s Wrong with Cutting Them a Check?
Previously I argued that the Bible’s model for helping the poor is one that encourages and enables self-reliance and one that is mostly dependent on individual givers. We can see that the Bible teaches this for good reasons.

The first reason is the good of the recipient. First, human nature dislikes receiving charity. As Nietzsche put it, “Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm.” And then there are those who get used to it; it can create a cycle of dependency – either a person who doesn’t think he can get by on his own or, worse yet, one who doesn’t see any need to. Also, I think we can reasonably expect a difference between a gift from the anonymous government and from your friends and neighbors – the latter will carry more gratitude and sense of responsibility to the giver than the former.

The second reason is the good of the giver. Those who don’t believe the government should take care of the poor (i.e., conservatives) give about 4 times as much to charity as those who disagree (i.e., liberals). The problem here for believers is that we are not just called to care for the poor but also for the souls of the giver – if the giver gives unconsciously, even unwillingly, because he “gave at the office,” he loses out on the spiritual benefits of charity (not to mention the eternal benefits). Charity by proxy is not charity.

Limited Government Yet Again
The next problem with just cutting them a government check (federal at least) is that darned Constitution. It simply doesn’t permit federal funds to be spent on charity. The venerable James Madison said he couldn’t “lay his finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right of Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” If you don’t like this, the Constitution needs to be changed, not ignored.

Poor Lottery Winners
Next, simple lack of money is not the only reason many people are poor. It’s been said that if we divided up all the money in the country evenly, in a few years there would again be rich and poor. Our experience with lottery winners seems to support that – one estimate is that a third of lottery winners later file bankruptcy. Simply handing poor people money does not solve their problems, and handing them money without addressing the other problems wastes the money and probably exacerbates the other problems.

Welfare Reformed
The final argument against simply cutting poor people a check is that is hasn’t worked. Trillions of dollars have been spent on Great Society programs, and the poverty rate remained relatively constant. Liberals often explain this as our not having spent enough money, but they have yet to tell us how much would be enough or what changes would make welfare programs work.

Well, what worked were the reforms of the 90s that both encouraged and required welfare recipients to work. While the programs haven’t been perfect, they have not, as Sen. Obama recently admitted to Rick Warren, turned millions out on the streets. Instead, the welfare rolls finally started to shrink. The cure for poverty is not money but jobs.

The Government’s Role
The formula for wealth can be described as money + connections + opportunity + luck. The only component government really should provide is opportunity.

We’ve already discussed at length the notion that the government can stimulate the economy and encourage job creation through tax policy. Low taxes are more likely to create an environment in which people who want jobs can find them. High taxes – whether they’re levied to support welfare policies or not – deter economic growth and make it harder to find jobs.

“We’ve tried this, and it didn’t work,” say certain segments of the media and certain politicians.

Wrong: “the lowest income quintile saw a roughly 25% increase in their living standards from 1983 to 2005” as opposed to “centralized, tax-funded programs… [that slow] down the economy and encourages dependence. This was the lesson of President Johnson's ‘War on Poverty.’ Poverty won.”

Regulating Regulation
Another tool government has in its kit is regulation. Regulation is understandably a hot topic in recent days, but suffice it to say most reasonable people understand that a certain amount of regulation is necessary. In many areas, though, the existing amount is more than necessary.

Consider the case of a woman who has no real skills except African hair braiding. She can start up a little business doing hair and make a little money that she can use to feed her family and maybe make enough to expand her business or get an education and expand her skill set. The only problem comes when she’s not allowed to open up her little braiding business because state law requires a license to braid hair. Regulation, though necessary at times, can be a protection racket – creating barriers for entry in a field to keep competition as low and salaries as high as possible.

Some years ago a group tried to set up new businesses in India, Hong Kong, and New York City; time to get the necessary permits was compared. In India, it took a few hours; in Hong Kong, it took about a day; in New York, it took weeks. Care to rank the economic growth in those areas?

We’re always going to be in search of the proper level of regulation, but the answer is going to be less, not more.

Minimum Wages
What about the minimum wage? This is another place where conservatives are often maligned. It is not that we oppose helping people. It’s that we 1) don’t think government should command wages and 2) we don’t think raising the minimum wage does enough good to outweigh the harm – such as increasing costs across society and making unskilled laborers too expensive to be attractive. In short, the minimum wage doesn’t help poor people.

A Safety Net
We all know, and generally agree with, the maxim that it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. So why would we set up a charity system to hand out fish?

You say, “Yeah, but it can keep them from starving to death right now!” It certainly can, and few conservatives oppose the notion of a safety net, but the problem is having a governmental (especially federal) safety net. This is where the community and the church should pick up the slack.

We can feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. There may be times when giving people cash is a good idea, though usually not. But the community should do this, not the government. (No one thinks we will, or even should, dismantle the existing federal net, but it certainly doesn’t need to be expanded.)

There are other things the community can do as well. We can help un- and under-skilled workers get new training – be it through new centers or just new uses of things like community colleges. We can create low or no cost day cares for low-income families. We can create job banks and referral programs from which employers who want to reach out to the poor can draw. Some churches already do these things; we need to do it more.

We shouldn’t be afraid to help the hungry, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try anything that can help the poor find good jobs, but we should be very leery of asking government to pay for it.

We want to help the needy, but in our desire to help the poor we need to make sure we actually help the poor. Intentions aren’t enough; we have to think through the various proposals and support those that can really lift people out of poverty.

Liberal programs based on government transfer payments – welfare – fail that test.

Next time we’ll look at the other big issue pressing on the minds of both the poor and the compassionate: health care reform.

Recommended reading:
The Liberal Temptation
What Do Evangelicals Want? 1
What Do Evangelicals Want? 3


Nancy said...


Anonymous said...

What a very well-written post! I don't think I've read a more cogent explanation of why welfare doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

well done...perhaps you might choose to quote a source other than Friedrich Nietzsche next time; I discard the whole when the part claims God is dead, or defines oneself an "immoralist".
Just my 2 cents. Otherwise, a well-written and timely analysis.

ChrisB said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

BTW, I was a bit wary of using a Nietzsche quote, but folks certainly can't accuse me of just picking from the "religious right."

Anonymous said...

I just ran across your blog and though found it interesting, as a fellow Christian I think you are mostly wrong on this issue. Most of what you write are rationalizations - that is, the poor are blamed for their own circumstances and systemic poverty influences are completely overlooked. This takes a complex issue and "individualizes" all components of it. It also removes any sense of mercy from the equation. Finally, it's also convenient because it lets you off the hook for ensuring the poor get adequate support (and you get a tax break to boot!). Jesus commands us to take care of the poor, and he speaks incessantly of the danger about putting money ahead of people. I think we need to take these words seriously - not just rationalize our obligations away.

Let me give you a practical example of systemic poverty. When I went to get my first mortgage (which allowed me to generate wealth), this was a long coaching process that was initiated and taught to me by my parents through savings, small loans, having a permanent address, getting connected to a bank, etc. If I was poor, I would have little access to this information. In fact, I would be inundated with commercial messages that I would be ill equipped to filter through. Everyone would want my money, but few would really be willing to help me out in a long term manner. I would also likely come from a singly parent family, be poorly educated, have access to drugs and alcohol at a younger age, perhaps have a child myself at 15 or 16, live with little long term security, likely not have a bank account, have a poorer diet than my peers and live in a neighborhood with a higher level of gang violence.

Though certainly not true for every situation, it is true for many. What government regulation is NECESSARY for is it can break these cycles and put a FLOOR on some of these influences (minimum wage and so forth), so that the poor at least have a fighting chance.

Is government the whole answer? NO. But I think regulation is necessary as it recognizes the human inclination to be selfish, only to look out for oneself, and to predate on the poor and vulnerable as a means of getting ahead. Surely as Christians, this is where we should be throwing our energy as well?

Mike in Canada.

ChrisB said...

Hi, Mike. Thanks for stopping by.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to get my entire position from this one article; I had to break my thoughts up into more readable chunks. This is also an American-conservative vs American-liberal approach piece.

I'm certainly not trying to be unmerciful. What I'm trying to do is show that liberal approaches to dealing with poverty using the government are ineffective and even harmful.

I don't think I blamed the poor for their state too much, and I recognize that there are systemic causes of poverty. There is a place for a certain amount of regulation, and I'm at peace with a certain amount of government safety net.

But taking money from one group to give to another will not end poverty. As I wrote above, we've transferred TRILLIONS of dollars to the poor with no affect.

If you want to help the poor, work for an economic and regulatory environtment that makes it as easy as possible for those who want to work to find jobs.