Public Square

Applying Economics to Our Call to Help the Poor

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In previous posts, Dr. Glenn Sunshine has been blogging about the call to Christians to help the poor. Dr. Sunshine first talks about the poor and the rich, and the responsibilities they both have regarding their respective financial situations. He then turns to discussing the role of the government in poverty alleviation.

There is certainly no lack of references in the Scripture on the poor and wealth in general, and Christians have clear and irrefutable responsibilities to help those in need. So Dr. Sunshine’s blogs are timely, relevant and critical.

In the Gospel of Matthew (22:34-40), Jesus, when he is responding to a question from the Pharisees on the greatest commandment in the Law, says:

Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

These verses together give us the full picture of how we demonstrate love in how we help others. We first are called to love the Lord with our entire being. Then Jesus says, “the second is like it” when he tells us how to love our neighbors. It is only through our love of the Lord that we can love others. These are powerful words for us as we reflect on our role in helping and loving those in need.

Dr. Sunshine clearly articulates the Biblical directives around helping the poor:

  • We must treat them fairly.
  • We must not defraud them.
  • We must preserve their dignity.

As Christians, can thinking like economists help us follow these directives? I say, yes! These three things may seem obvious, but only when we put our economic thinking caps on can we really get into some of the ramifications.

I have no doubt that all elected officials involved in any form of welfare legislation have good intentions behind their ideas. They want to help, they feel empathy for the poorest among us. However, if we truly think about human dignity from a Christian perspective–that we are God’s special and unique creation—and we combine that with our understanding of unintended consequences, we know we need to be diligent in thinking about how we help. Note: I said “how” we help, not whether we help. If we see someone who meets the Biblical definitions of being poor or in emergency need, we help them. The question is over how. Is the state the best suited for this role, or are other institutions and individuals?

As Dr. Sunshine points out, we cannot retain the dignity of individuals in need when we foster dependencies on the state (or anyone else for that matter, which is why slavery is so destructive). We are all created to work and work is dignifying, so the best way to help someone in need is to help them put their skills to work. And they are rewarded when they can bring their unique skills to serve and help others.

The other economic lesson that is embedded in Dr. Sunshine’s discussion is the knowledge problem. He talks about subsidiarity — the notion that governmental institutions are subsidiary (secondary) to more immediate groups in finding solutions to problems — and he claims that this comes from the unique characteristic of Christianity in that it emerged separately from the state.

Dr. Sunshine hits the nail on the head and is bringing to the table the issues that come with the knowledge problem which we have discussed on this blog. It’s not just that poverty alleviation should not be handled by the federal government as some a priori truth; it’s that they are incapable of effectively providing the much needed assistance. The further removed the helper is from the person in need of help, the less knowledge is had about how to solve the problem. And since we are dealing with human beings, there is no one-size-fits all approach that we can take that will embrace and celebrate our God-given dignity.

The Church, along with on-the-ground non-profits that specialize in poverty alleviation, are in a much better position to help. They can and do overcome some of the knowledge obstacles. They can connect personally with those in need and make assessments over what that unique individual requires to be lifted out of poverty.

The most important insight Dr. Sunshine brings to light in this series is the moral obligation of the rich to provide employment and to support business. When you walk into Wal-Mart to purchase trash bags or your local farmers market to buy produce, you are fulfilling a moral obligation to support employment.

This is the beauty and the power of the God-given market process. I don’t even have to know who I am helping to help them. But when I purchase something from a supplier, I am a small part of keeping them in business. I am also holding them accountable for being good stewards of their resources and their labor. No matter how hard a federal government tried, it could not accomplish this with all the best intentions in the world. The knowledge problem is bigger than the government but smaller than God.

Loving our neighbor like yourself requires that we give help that protects dignity, that offers opportunity and that allows the unique gifts of the beneficiary to be unleashed. Going to those least equipped to help should only be the very last resort.

Question: In what ways do you help the poor regularly? Have you considered your regular commerce as poverty alleviation?

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