Public Square

Poverty and Government 2

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Shifting the burden to the state

In the previous article, we looked at what we can learn from Scripture about the role of government in addressing problems of poverty. What we find is that social welfare is not mentioned at all in connection with government, suggesting that it is secondary to other responsibilities, such as the administration of justice.

We also looked at the principle of subsidiarity, which states that care for the poor (among other issues) should be handled first by family, then by voluntary charitable organizations; only when those prove inadequate should government be involved, and even then at as local a level as possible.

Subsidiarity was the underlying if unarticulated principle of poor relief in the United States all the way up to the New Deal during the Great Depression, and the Great Society and War on Poverty during the 1960s. These marked progressive steps away from subsidiarity, shifting principal responsibility for social welfare to the Federal government, administered through the States, with little local involvement—exactly the opposite of an approach guided by the principle of subsidiarity.

While this approach did have some positive results, it also had a number of serious negative side effects.

Side effects

First, this kind of top-down organization requires regulations for welfare to be written in such a way that they apply to everyone across the board. Unfortunately, since local conditions vary so much, the nationalizing control of poor relief creates one-size-fits-none policies that cannot adequately address the specific needs in particular communities.

Along with regulations that do not fit local circumstances, policies can also produce unintended consequences that cause more harm than the good.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mother taught in inner city Newark. Most of her students were on welfare and therefore did not live with their fathers: in an effort to prevent cheating, the welfare laws said that the families would receive reduced benefits if the father lived at home, because he presumably would be working and thus be ineligible for welfare. But there were no jobs, so to make ends meet, the fathers had to leave.

The net result is that the Great Society drove fathers out of their homes, destroying the fabric of the African-American family. In the 1950s, the illegitimacy rate among Blacks was lower than among Whites, largely because of the influence of black churches; in the 1960s, an alarmed Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the destruction of the black family when the rate hit 22%. By 1994, it had risen to over 70%.

Single-parent households are the most important predictor of poverty, yet that is precisely what the “War on Poverty” created. 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 to the poor advocated in Scripture. Psalms 96 is instructive here: after warning us not to put our trust in princes because even the best of them eventually die (vss. 3-4), it tells us only the Lord can be relied on to provide social justice (vss. 6-9).

Another problem that flows from the increased dependency that the welfare state has produced is increased corruption in government. In a fallen world, governments are inevitably corrupt; in fact, St. Augustine described government as institutionalized injustice.

Augustine tells us that government always acts for its own power and glory, and therefore that abuse of power is a part of the system. In democratic societies, the most obvious example of this abuse is vote buying through legislation: politicians win by promising their constituents more and more benefits (paid for by the government and someone else’s taxes). A quotation generally attributed (incorrectly, it seems) to Alexander Tytler, tells us:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy….

This process leads to two other consequences. First, because the Federal government is ill-suited to handle welfare, it requires an ever-expanding bureaucracy to write regulations and administer the programs, making it inefficient and generally ineffective while at the same time increasing the reach and power of the government. This results in skyrocketing costs that drive governments to bankruptcy. And when that happens, the truly poor and needy end up worse off than they started.

Second, dependency on government decreases liberty—originally defined as the freedom to pursue a virtuous life.

Those dependent on the government have disincentives to try to find a way out of their situation. I have personally had numerous people decline to work with me in a business I own because they were afraid of losing government benefits. Since Scripture teaches that work is good and tells us to work so that we have the ability to give to others, this kind of dependency saps virtue and limits freedom to act even in your own interests, relying instead on the government to pay all your bills and take care of you.

Think about it like this: Imagine a situation in which a group of people work and give 100% of their income to someone else in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, as well as some personal items. There is a term for that arrangement: slavery. And it is the complete opposite of liberty.

Government-run welfare also is a disincentive for churches and citizens to get involved in taking care of the poor; we pay taxes for other people to do that. Although there is no shortage of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other places of need where we could volunteer, few actually get involved, at least in part because we figure we’ve subcontracted those jobs out to the government.

This is why most people who pursue professions in social work and other related fields are liberals: they see this as something best handled by professionals working for the government. It is also why liberals give less to charity than conservatives: they see this as government responsibility, and so they figure they already gave at the IRS.


Our unwillingness to get our hands dirty carrying out Jesus’ call to love our neighbor is in part a consequence of the welfare state. We no longer feel responsible to care for the poor since our taxes do that, and without responsibility we do not develop virtue and instead step away from liberty and toward another form of dependence on the government: we rely on it to do our job so we do not have to.

All of this is not to say that the 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 be the central agency that provides for the needy.

That job belongs to more local agencies and especially to the church. Even here, however, there are many misconceptions about New Testament models on how this is to be done. We will begin an exploration of the church’s role in caring for the poor in the next article.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship,

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