You Can't Trust the Government to Solve the Poverty Problem

If you wish to get a heated discussion going among serious Christians suggest that it is our divinely given responsibility to care for the poor. Then suggest that we ought to do something, anything is better than nothing, in the name of Christ to direclty alleviate hunger and to address poverty with real Christian solutions. Few will disagree with you a this point and all will agree that something ought to be done. But no two people are likely to come up the same solution for the problem at the end of the day. Conservatives will appeal to private charity as the best approach to the problem and liberals will suggest that government must get even more involved. And both will appeal to the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, the kingdom sayings of Jesus, and the need to demonstrate that the gospel we preach must show itself in tangible ways that really care for people in both body and soul.

Father Robert Sirico, president of Acton Institute, recently suggested in an editorial (Acton Notes, March 2006) that appeared originally in the Detroit News that Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical argued correctly that “the attempt to create a loving state actually results in extinguishing the possibility for the exercise of love of neighbor.” For me this is the nub of the issue and why Christians so often debate the hows of addressing hunger and poverty without much agreement.

In Deus Caritas Est Benedict XVI actually wrote: “We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State [that] . . . combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need" (emphasis mine).

This is precisely what the last forty-plus years of social welfare in the United States has demonstrated through the failed “war on poverty” which began in the 1960s. And this is why I am strongly inclined against more of this same approach in the future. Decades of experience prove that giving money to the poor through poverty-related government programming destroys both morals and motivation. It doesn’t lead to better education and it actually breaks down real family life. The argument, says columnist George Will, has been that the poor are just like everyone else, except they don’t have enough goods and services to succeed. And, it has been assumed on the left for an entire generation, the government really knows best how to provide these resources for the poor. But George Will correctly argues: “The 1930s paradigm has been refuted by four decades of experience. The new paradigm is of behavior-driven poverty that results from individuals’ nonmaterial deficits. It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores—punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc.—that are not developed in disorganized homes.”

What is really needed is a truly free society where we can pursue virtue in both the private and public sectors. When our models of response to the problem of poverty are rooted in a deep respect for catholic Christianity, i.e., basic Christian orthodoxy, and then joined with creative social ideas that eschew the easy solutions of top-heavy governmental involvement, we will again foster an environment where the well-to-do can practice proper charity and the poor can be helped without destroying their families and personal character. This is not to say that government has no role at all or that government should not care what happens to its poorest citizens. Read Benedict’s words again. When government is involved, and involved at its very best, it will be involved by combining “spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” This means the best efforts to deal with poverty and crisis are usually locally based and involve those who are actually closest to the real problems. This way the right people are truly helped and the criminal element is not given more FEMA cash to spend on lotto tickets and booze, as we have seen so blatantly illustrated in the tragedy following Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. It is time for Christians to get involved in addressing poverty with new solutions. Really, the best solutions are not new at all but are the older ones rooted in compassionate Christianity, not in the social welfare state as we have known it in the modern era.

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