Public Square & Theology 101

Can the Government Effectively Care for the Poor?

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In my last post exploring “who are the poor?”, I discussed biblical definitions of the poor and the rich. Let’s take this analysis further. What responsibilities does the state have to the poor? There are several biblical and historical underpinnings that can help us answer this question.

The Bible teaches that those who are better off have positive responsibilities to those who are poor. We are to see to it that their needs are met, and we are to do it in such a way that we preserve their dignity (e.g., Deut. 24:10). The emphasis on work as an essential part of human dignity was a unique contribution of Judaism and Christianity to world culture, but its implications for helping the poor have often been forgotten.

Scripture is clear that when we are confronted with immediate, emergency needs, we meet them (James 1:27). It is important, however, not to create situations that force the poor into dependency.

What Are the Responsibilities of the State to the Poor?

In considering poverty relief, it is important to discuss the responsibilities of the state to the poor. The Bible was written in an era in which state-run social welfare programs simply did not exist. Biblical instructions concerning the poor were thus written with the assumption that any aid given to the poor would come directly from members of the community.

Biblical teaching suggests the principal function of the government is to administer justice impartially (Lev. 19:15). The second key point about government is that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. As Jesus taught, Christians were prepared to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”—they refused to render to Caesar the things that were God’s (Matt. 22:20-22). This amounts to a de facto insistence on limited government.

Christianity is unique among the world’s major religions in that it established itself in society without support from the state. Social welfare was handled through families, private individuals, benevolent organizations, and churches all the way into the early twentieth century. There was an emphasis on local solutions rather than the top-down approach of the government.

Unintended Consequences

The New Deal was the force that changed the biblical and limited role of government to a more hands-on approach to social welfare. This process was accelerated in the 1960s by the Great Society and the War on Poverty. These efforts yielded some positive results, but also created a number of serious, negative side effects.

For example, in the 1960s, my mom taught in inner-city Newark where most of her students were on welfare. In an effort to prevent cheating the system, welfare laws stipulated that families would receive reduced benefits if the father lived at home because he presumably would be working and thus be ineligible for the program. But there were no jobs. To make ends meet, fathers had to leave their households. The net result is that the Great Society drove fathers out of their homes, destroying the fabric of many impoverished African-American families. The result has been in effect a permanent underclass, locked in a cycle of dependency on government—exactly the opposite of the kind of true aid advocated in scripture.

Further Issues with Public Welfare

Federalizing social welfare leads to two other consequences. First, it is inefficient and generally ineffective because it requires an ever-expanding bureaucracy to write regulations and administer programs. This results in skyrocketing costs that drive governments to bankruptcy. When this happens, the truly poor and needy end up worse off than they started.

Second, dependency on government decreases liberty. Those dependent on the government have disincentives to try to find a way out of their situation. I have personally had numerous people decline work with me in a business I own because they were afraid of losing government benefits.

Further, government-run welfare is also a disincentive for churches and citizens to get involved in taking care of the poor. The new mentality is: “we pay taxes for other people to do that for us.” This is not the biblical view of helping your neighbor.

None of this implies that government, even at the federal level, should not be involved in welfare. Scripture may assign other roles to the government as its primary function, but it does not forbid government involvement in caring for the poor. What it does mean is that government, especially the federal government, should not have the central responsibility to care for the needy. That responsibility properly belongs to more local agencies, especially the church.

Editor’s Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Glenn Sunshine’s chapter, “Who Are the Poor?” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.

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On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Sept. 23, 2013.

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  • While it’s true that the Bible doesn’t contain a proof text denying the state the authority to give to the poor, there are many reasons to prevent it.

    1. The first is practical. The state isn’t a horse that we can tame. It appeals to the worst impulse in mankind – the lust to dominate others. People who populate the state are always looking for ways to extend their power. If you allow anything more than its basic night watchman role, it will use that opportunity to expand infinitely, as we have seen.

    2. God created only one government, that of Israel before the monarchy. He was very unhappy with Israel for abandoning that government. God’s ideal government had no taxes or state apparatus for collecting taxes, no legislature or executive branch, no tax collectors. Some scholars believe that the courts did not try to enforce the poor laws, moral laws or religious laws but left those to God to enforce.

    3. As you wrote, the Bible assumes that giving to the poor is voluntary. God loves a cheerful giver, not one forced to give by the state.

    4. How do we store up treasure in heaven if the state does the giving to the poor?

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