How Should Government Deal with Poverty?

John ArmstrongPoverty

A regular argument made, at least from some evangelical political voices from the political left, is to cite numerous Old Testament texts about poverty and then suggest that one of the central concerns of a just government is to solve the problems associated with poverty. Republicans are heartless promoters of bigger business while Democrats care deeply about the little guy and people’s needs.

No one who has an ounce of compassion disagrees that Christians should care about poverty and its associated social ills. The issue here is not "Should we care about poverty and the problems related to it?" Rather, the question is, "What is the best way to respond to poverty?" The evangelical left, expressed through voices like that of Jim Wallis of Sojourners, often acts as if they alone hold the high ground in this debate. They care deeply about the poor and conservatives do not. Frankly, I believe it is time that we smoke this myth out into the open for what it is, nonsense.

I confess that Ronald Reagan, and what he stood for, has had a profound impact upon my life and political thought. Reagan once said, about his own Illinois childhood, "We were poor when I was young, but the difference then was that the government didn’t come around telling you you were poor." How true.

I most assuredly do not want to make light of real poverity in America, or of the need to address this problem with compassion, but anyone who has really seen the rest of the world, as I have in places like India and South American, knows that America’s poverty is a small thing when compared to that elsewhere. Here the poor can and do buy stereos, televisions, cigarettes and alcohol. There they hope for food and water in order to live another day.

I believe Ronald Reagan got it right when, in a speech as governor of California in 1972, he said: "Free enterprise has done more to reduce poverty than all the government programs dreamed up by Democrats." The bottom line answer to poverty in America is not more social programs devised and run by the government. Personally, I want more Christians to understand that they should not feel guilty about the blessings this system has given to them materially. They should, however, learn generosity and much broader giving with true joy. "Unto whom much is given much is required" still holds true.

Reagan, once again, understood all of this so beautifully. He said in his State of the Union address in 1988: "My friends, some years ago the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won!" The solutions to poverty are to be found in the free enterprise system and the sooner we stop bashing business and wealth making enterprises the better will be our overall response to poverty in America. And you can tell the Christian left I said so!