Helping the Poor, Private and Public

The Bible consistently and repeatedly exhorts us to defend and provide for the poor. Obedience to God means pursuing his vision through every means possible. However, many Christians object to helping the poor through public means, suggesting that we should only help the poor through direct church-based support (or Christian aid organizations), and helping the poor through government aid (and advocacy thereof) should be avoided. This stance significantly affects the means by which we are willing to seek to obey scriptures. Consequently, I wanted to discuss examine some of the objections that are often raised to public funding of programs to help the poor. Some concerns are legitimate and all should be rationally addressed.

The first objection to public assistance of the poor is that private giving works better than public means. If we really had to make a value comparison between the two, I would agree. However, this is a false choice. They are not mutually exclusive, no government assistance will ever eliminate the possibility and opportunity for churches and other organizations to meet needs as well. And conversely, the narrow way of taking up our cross and following Christ will never have the multitudes needed to directly fund all the needs of the world (but Christians may act as the examples and catalysts for more systematic alleviation of poverty). There will always be needs even with both the church and public assistance involved.

Let me illustrate this with a simple analogy. Suppose a group of people are standing by a beach, and someone’s starts struggling in the waves. The lifeguard jumps up and goes to help him. In the meantime, down the beach, another person’s starts drowning. They onlookers reason “the lifeguard would certainly be more efficient at helping this drowning person”, and so they stay on the beach and let the person drown. If the question you are asking is what is the most efficient method for the people that we do help, than allowing some to drown is no problem, we would be operating less efficiently, with more opportunity for mistakes if non-trained onlookers were to help. However, if we turn the question around and actually seek to make sure that everyone is helped, watching a person drown becomes unacceptable.

The appropriate question then is not which is better but whether or not public assistance is worthwhile at all. And this is definitely an important question to ask, but considering whether or not public assistance is beneficial is far a different test than if it is more beneficial than private assistance. From here, let’s consider the objections to public assistance having any benefit.

The first objection is to the actual taxes required to fund the assistance. Some try to claim that taxes are immoral or theft. I have written with this objection in more detail here, but briefly, taxation is one of the only activities of government that the Bible actually specifically ordains. Others may simply suggest that the tax cost is too high, and they don’t like to pay them. But the inconvenience of taxes certainly does not negate its legitimacy.

The second objection is that there is risk of creating dependencies and eliminating or reversing incentives for productivity (known as perverse incentives). This is definitely an important and worthwhile objection. Certainly programs should be aware of these risks and be tempered when necessary. However, we need to keep a few things in mind with this objection:

First, this danger is not specific to government assistance, some of the most egregious acts of dependence creation have been at the hands of private charities. Both public and private efforts have real dangers of dependence and both have demonstrated quality programs that can minimize these issues. While we should definitely work to identify and correct programs that create perverse incentives, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Second, it would be naive to think that assistance of poor has overall long-term perverse incentives. There are specific situations where perverse incentives occur, but in long-run, it is far more economically beneficial to be productive enough to not need assistance. But still, we should actively work to eliminate perverse incentives, and root out causes of unhealthy dependencies. But doing this is not easy. It’s not simply a matter of making budget cuts or being stingy. In fact, wisely pursing the best types of assistance often requires more investment, both with time and finances, to research the effects of different interventions and respond appropriately.

I am most familiar with foreign development aid as a form of government funded assistance. Foreign development aid is less than one percent of the US budget. There are hazards of dependency, but there has been a strong focus of late in investing in health and microfinance that enable healthy productive individuals and thriving businesses to actually reduce dependencies. The benefits: without even mentioning all the economic development, the health services alone are estimated to save several millions lives a year. To consider these saved lives not worth the cost would represent horrific devaluing of human life. It’s hard to imagine that the alternative, millions of dead, would somehow represent less dependent and more empowered people. The dead are not empowered.

Another objection is that some level of help for the poor is appropriate and reasonable, but there is a fear that increasingly levels of help will lead to a socialistic welfare society that goes to far. This is a classic slippery slope fallacy. The reason this is a fallacy is because simply asserting the possibility of a slope does nothing create logical or verifiable foundation that the slippery slope actually exists. This is a fear-based argument instead of a rational argument. We should never avoid doing the right thing for fear of being closer to one of the wrong ways.

The fourth objection is that the Bible never says that the poor should be helped through governments. It is true that the Bible never explicitly says this. However, there are significant number of passages about the poor that are addressed to societies, communities, particularly in the minor prophets. These passages seem directed at systematic injustices, which suggest a systematic corrections.

More importantly though, not helping the poor through public policy would be an exception from the commands of the Bible, and this exception simply does not exist. The Bible has hundreds of passages telling us to protect and help the weak, poor, and ill without any exceptions being stated for how to go about it.

A helpful analogy would be if we heard the commandment to love our neighbor (as our self), but then decided that since the Bible never actually explicitly says that we have to love our neighbor on Wednesdays, we can have that day off. Creating such an exception is of course absurd, and it is equally erroneous to drum up exceptions to helping the poor with an excuse of it not being explicated.

A final objection is that public-driven assistance precludes the joy of giving for individuals. However, there is no reason that the joy of giving needs only belong to individuals, but rather communities and even whole countries can collectively enter into the joy of helping others, and my research suggests there is evidence to support that idea. More importantly though, the focus on giver’s joy represents a distortion of the purpose of giving. Giving is not for the sake of the giver, it is for the recipient. Giving is supposed to be driven by love for others, not a self-centered emotional satisfaction.

Simply put, private and public aid do not exclude each other, and a total commitment to obey the Biblical mandate to help the least of these should be pursued with nothing less than a willingness to use every means, public and private, to achieve this end. In fact, these are not only compatible, but can even be complimentary. Public assistance can provide verifiable forms of help with tremendous benefits and return on investment in terms of real human lives and critical development that can address important health and economic issues, while private assistance can often make higher-impact investments with less-verifiable results.

I suspect that most Christians are actually smart enough that they don’t really fall for the logical fallacies of the objections above. While these objections may be offered by many, I think that there is a deeper theological issue that drives these ideas.

In the last century American Evangelicalism has been characterized by an unorthodox perspective on evangelism and spiritual growth. Evangelicals have tended towards a view that our physical efforts are simply finite activities that exist solely for the purpose of evangelism (or personal discipleship). A deeper examination of this theology deserves its own blog post, but briefly, this belief is at odds with orthodox Biblical Christianity that regards obedience and submission to God in every teaching, and seeking redemption in all things in life as of intrinsic value to God, and not merely a means to an end of conversion.

Where did this theological fallacy originate? Tim Keller points to the Pietist movement, led by John Wesley and George Whitefield, as leading to this distorted thinking. Others like Darrow Miller suggest that dualist philosophies of Greek and Gnostic movements be at fault. Overreaction to social gospel teachings may also be at play. Either way, this theology has had a tremendous impact on the church.

The implication of this theology is unavoidable. If helping others is merely a means to conversion, there is no point in helping others if there is not a possibility of conversion. Working through secular organizations or through the government to bring relief and justice is pointless if we are only interested in conversion or spiritual impact. And evangelicals who have accepted this idea have invariably taken a negative attitude towards the public role in fighting poverty. Simply put, theology matters, and when we embrace unbiblical theology, it ultimately detracts from our pursuit of God’s mission (and again, later I will try to do a post considering this in more detail.)

Let us take God’s call to help the poor seriously, loving Him with all our heart, soul, and might, and embrace every means possible to be obedient, not just the ways that fit with the prevailing attitude of our Christian culture.

Deu 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

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