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Why Poverty?

If you imagine the major issues pushed by American Christians qua Christians, poverty alleviation probably doesn’t come to mind. This isn’t to say that poverty hasn’t been a historical concern of some American churches, or that no global Christianity features a strong emphasis on poverty. (Pope Francis and the Latin American tradition of liberation theology come immediately to mind.) Nor is it to say that Christianities that don’t focus so strongly on poverty are somehow pale or errant — there are a multitude of sound and worthy causes out there for Christian groups to take up as their own. Take, for instance, Christian abolitionists, Christian environmentalists, Christians against the death penalty, and Christians for nuclear disarmament.

Then there are your more prominent American Christian causes, the ones that tend to make the news: Christians against the continued legality of elective abortion, Christians against the teaching of evolution in schools, Christians against same-sex marriage. The list from here whittles into smaller categories; there are Christians against gun control and Christians against vaccination, but the point I mean to make is that poverty isn’t the default focus of Christians in the USA, despite what most people summon to mind when thinking of the example of Jesus.

With so many shadows falling over the world at any given time it’s hard to explain why one focus seems a more promising one than the next. But as it is currently Poverty Awareness Month, I thought I might try to explain why poverty is the center of my study as an academic and a practicing Christian.

I told you in my introductory post that I have bad taste in music. I do. This is an extension of my general lameness. At my high school in North Texas, I was (surprise) a regulation dork: I worked hard; competed in and, ugh, won essay competitions; spent nearly every weekend at debate tournaments; and never got into any trouble of any kind. I had teammates of various sorts (Academic Decathlon, debate, University Interscholastic League) but no ‘friends.’ I was never asked to any house parties, never received an invitation to homecoming, and was passed over altogether for my senior prom, which I thus didn’t go to. It hasn’t taken reflection to realize I was a loser; I knew it at the time. And so, as a sophomore, dweeby and lonely, I looked for some things to do with my time.

First, I singed up with my Methodist church to assist with Sunday school classes for pre-K children. There wasn’t much to it: say a prayer, pass out cups of pretzels and m&ms, and carry out a little craft project relating to the Bible. This got me in good with some of the other girls my age who spent a lot of time at church, and provided me with a fine enough reason to turn in early Saturday night. It was fun and low-impact, and then Emma joined our class.

Emma was seven years old, but had the mental faculties and motor skills of a child less than half that age. The day she arrived strapped into her motorized wheelchair, her mother, a harried and exhausted looking woman who worked as an ER nurse, explained to me that Emma had nearly drowned as a toddler. She’d spent a few minutes under water, her mother told me, and I remember feeling terribly uncomfortable at hearing her voice waver. Due to the brain damage, Emma had seizures, vastly reduced brain function, and needed round-the-clock supervision.

I was a little concerned. The other kids could use safety scissors for our crafts and were fine to munch on goldfish and nibbles of candy, but Emma needed pureed or baby food. When snack time rolled around on our first day, I slipped out of the classroom and found my way to the nursery. The women who looked after infants during the adult service reluctantly surrendered a little glass jar of baby food, wondering: why didn’t her folks find somebody to watch her?

I tried to feed Emma. I was about sixteen, the baby of my family, and I had no idea how to feed another person. Mashed carrot was everywhere, and it was only when I tried to clean her up that I realized her clothes were a little too small, and already dirty. Emma wanted her shoes off, started kicking and grunting, and so I took them off her feet and tried to smooth her hair back until she calmed down. But she kept kicking, and whining, and I was panicking — the other kids were staring, and I felt like I must’ve been doing something terribly wrong. When I stood up to go get help, Emma put her arms up toward me. She wanted to be held.

And that became our routine. Emma was calmer when held, so I sat cross-legged on the ground and held her in my lap through almost every class, helping her eat and sometimes do crafts — I could wrap her fingers around a little jar of glitter, for example, and help her shake. Sometimes she just slept, because the medication she took to prevent her seizures had a powerful sedative effect.

People, especially the other Sunday school teachers, talked about her family. Through the snippets of conversation I would share with her mother during drop-off and pick-up, I put together a sense of what was going on: no public school could take her because they lacked the resources, and private school wasn’t a financial option. Her mom was a nurse and her dad worked on cars. Emma was usually looked after by underqualified neighbors or her slightly older siblings, and spent so much time in her chair that she often had sores and diaper rash. It was a struggle to pay for her medicine. Everything else came second to trying to keep her well, and with two other children, there was a lot of everything else.

Church, her mom told me one morning, is really the only time I can relax.

I immediately thought: that’s not what church is for, it’s not a time to tune out and take it easy. Fortunately an epiphany of higher wisdom followed my initial snotty (hey, I was sixteen) impulse: poverty gets in God’s way.

This is true in a variety of senses. Poverty as an individual phenomenon is more harmful on the brains of developing children than crack cocaine; it truncates the lifespan by a number of years; is associated strongly with higher rates of asthma and overall susceptibility to illness, and can account for a loss of up to 8.2 years of perfect health. When we factor in that people are trying to deal with all of these challenges while participating in communities, we realize that poverty is also manifested as an overall detriment to society. Inequality is associated with violent crime, and poverty itself militates powerfully against getting and staying married. The cumulative stress of all these burdens prevents people who live in poverty from joining their more secure counterparts in moving toward human flourishing.

And human flourishing is the vision, if you will, of all Christian ethics. It’s the state we work toward so that we can better pursue the apprehension of the worship of God. It’s a step in the direction of our ultimate destiny with God, which makes it a vital part of the narrative of the church as a corporate body. It’s indispensable, in other words, to our thinking; we can’t rightly figure out the ethical Christian life without human flourishing as an end game. Yale Divinity professor Nicholas Wolterstorff explains here what the Christian ethical imagination should aspire to in terms of that flourishing:

It is the vision of shalompeace — first articulated in the Old Testament poetic and prophetic literature but then coming to expression in the New Testament as well. We shall see that shalom is intertwined with justice. In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature…But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, nor merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. A nation may be at peace with all its neighbors and yet be miserable in its poverty. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself…If individuals are not granted what is due them, if their claim on others is not acknowledged by those others, if others do not carry out their obligations to them, then shalom is wounded.

In other words, this is the vision that guides our ethical work; this is the hope, the aspiration, the motion. And we see that an immediate detriment to this movement is the failure of communities to meet the obligations we have to one another, as laid out in the Word. As a principle, shalom helps us understand what our obligations might be, but it also guides us in knowing the eternal purpose of those obligations. And it’s blighted by the kind of suffering Emma and her family and so many like them struggle through. In poverty like that, there is no peace, no serenity; even the possibility of peace is foreclosed upon by desperation, suffering, and strife.

Christians move together toward God. We’re an ethical and responsible community. It’s imperative that we don’t abandon those we’re obligated to not only because that is our instruction, but because to do so is to injure the peace of our total community, to harm our collective destiny as a church. For me, poverty is a clear and present form of injustice and abandonment with ramifications that are utterly antithetical to the Christian mission here on earth.

And though I didn’t think that in so many words at the time, I felt called in the direction of poverty. I stuck with it. Later in high school, I became a Big Sister, and after going to college I ran my university’s Hunger & Homelessness program, and then served on the board of directors of a local homeless shelter. Here in the UK, I work in a shelter once a week, and study the Christian ethics of handling poverty. I’ve found that once you become sensitive to poverty, you never have to look hard to find it: it’s all around us, and once you see it, it’s very difficult to look away.

So that’s the source of my focus, and I hope my journey might be helpful for those who are curious about the Christian left, or those Christians who are perhaps suspicious of what may appear to be a too-strong affinity with political coalitions not commonly paired with Christianity.

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116 thoughts on “Why Poverty?

  1. From today’s birthday girl (as you might have noticed on Google):

    There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.

    I can’t think of any better issue for someone to focus on, as a Christian or as a non-Christian, even if I can’t imagine a more frustrating issue for someone to focus on.

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      • I’m working on a post on Hurston which I’d hoped (though it seems increasingly unlikely) to post today, so that quote (from her autobiography) was on my mind. Her work is filled with such imagery. Her work is a national treasure.

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        • , I have something about Zora Neale Hurston that I could post today. I don’t want to step on your toes, and it’s written from a particular perspective and a particular audience. But check it out in the blog’s drafts, and if you’d like to merge your writing in with mine, I’d be happy to collaborate with you!

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  2. I think that one of Christianity’s problems with poverty compared to the other two Abrahamic religions is that Christianity has a certain amount of idealization of poverty and a distaste for the material life built into it. The Gospels and other Christian writing do stress about being concerned for the poor but at the same time they invest a certain holy quality in poverty. Its why many monastic orders required an oath of poverty.

    Judaism and Islam see things differently. The Talmud explicitly states that living in poverty is an unmitigated curse. Maimonides argued that the highest degree of charity is to ensure that there is no poverty and that charity is not needed. Islam was founded by a merchant and the early Caliphs were also merchants and has a merchant’s distaste for poverty built in. I’d argue that Judaism and Islam are pro-poor people but anti-poverty.

    I think the theological romantization of poverty that exists in much of Christianity, where poverty is supposed to make salvation easier, kind of makes it effectively fight poverty because a good chunk of Christian theology sees poverty as something good because it makes salvation easier. If poverty makes salvation easier than why would you want to get rid of it?

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    • Christianity doesn’t idealize poverty. It idealizes spirituality. It understands that the getting and having of material possessions often distracts from thoughts of the divine.

      Which is, in fact, exactly what this essay said. The rich man thinking about what wine to have with dessert, the poor man wondering whether his son can drink milk that’s gone off without throwing up; neither of these men are thinking about God right at the moment, because the noisy concerns of the world are too loud.

      The message seen in parable of the rich man was not “you have to be poor to get into heaven”, but “you can’t buy your way in”. It’s often misinterpreted, but that’s because modern society thinks with its stomach first and its head second.

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    • Maimonides argued that the highest degree of charity is to ensure that there is no poverty and that charity is not needed.

      This +1000. For those, particularly libertarian types, who are (or at least, act) all confused at the concept of “social justice,” this is what it really means. It’s not about redistributing income and/or wealth from the haves to the have-nots. It’s about constructing, engineering if you will, an economic order that doesn’t produce such glaring disparities in the first place.

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      • Yeah, this. You can’t completely get rid of poverty for a variety of reasons but with a bit of work you can get rid of a lot of it and make life much less stressful. There are always going to be people that are so dysfunctional that no amount of intervention is going to help or cases that fall through the cracks but it doesn’t need to widespread.

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    • Wow, awesome comment Leeesq. Lots of good points.

      My one contribution to it: personally speaking here I view the anti-materialism expressed in Christian precepts along a more buddhist spiritual trajectory than a specifically (anti-)materialist one. That is, I think the idea is that spirituality is found not in the absence of wealth and material objects but rather the lack of attachment to those things.

      For example, a sentence like “it’s easier for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” is ambiguous between those two types of readings.

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      • Still, you’re right, for Christians wealth is a distraction from the path, in a very Buddhist sense. Matthew 19:16-28 (when the rich dude asks Jesus what he should do to get into heaven) is a good example of this approach to material wealth. Basically, what do I do? Get your life right (follow the commandments). What if I’ve got my life right (by following the commandments)? Then get your mind right by giving everything you have to the poor and following Jesus.

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  3. Do you know what happened to Emma and her family? Obviously, poverty is bigger than one family, but you paint a vivid picture of their struggles, and I hope they are doing better.

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    • I keep up with her through her mom and always see her when I’m home from wherever I’m at school at the moment. They did find a public school with the resources to teach her, which was pretty amazing. Through the school they were able to find a charitable program that sponsors physical therapy for Em. Right now, they’re working on learning to walk. What’s amazing is that she was able to a) learn to stand and b) get strong enough to do it! It’s a pretty outstanding story of brain plasticity, and of course, if you ask her family, faith.

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  4. I will avoid engaging on the correlation/causation issues that you step into in your paragraph where you assert that inequality causes poverty and violent crime (and yes violent crime has dropped by fifty percent in last generation). Instead I would focus on this phrase:

    “I’ve found that once you become sensitive to poverty, you never have to look hard to find it…”

    I would suggest flipping the paradigm around. What is unusual is not poverty, this has been the universal condition of virtually every human since the discovery of agriculture. What needs explaining and begs for our attention is that once rare quality of affluence.

    What has changed in the last two hundred years which allowed wide scale affluence to emerge?

    What has allowed the last decade to be the best ever at the reduction in inequality worldwide?

    What changed to allow a billion people to emerge out of severe poverty in last twenty years?

    The question is why NOT poverty? Or more appropriately — Why widespread affluence?

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    • Roger, the answer to what allows widespread affluence is many faced. A lot of different factors contributed to the decrease in poverty. One factor is that humans made many scientific and technological advancements in the past two centuries that allowed us to finally overcome many of the natural causes of poverty like lack of food during certain years or the cost of clothing. Capitalism, free markets, and democracy have also contributed towards a decrease in poverty. Capitalism and free markets allow for the creation of wealth and the distribution of goods while democracy provides for a modicum of fair distribution of goods and services. Even in an abundance of wealth and goods, an improper political system can be used to ensure that one group benefits more than others.

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      • “an improper political system can be used to ensure that one group benefits more than others.”

        But “he has more than me!” does not necessarily mean that I have nothing.

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      • “Capitalism and free markets allow for the creation of wealth and the distribution of goods while democracy provides for a modicum of fair distribution of goods and services. Even in an abundance of wealth and goods, an improper political system can be used to ensure that one group benefits more than others.”

        If I assume free markets are fundamentally unfair, and that proper democratic dictates are fundamentally more fair and are less likely to be used to ensure one group benefits more than others, then I would agree.

        Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of democracy and of the need for non-market based distribution to supplement free markets, but my logic isn’t that free markets are fundamentally unfair or that political solutions are either more fair or more likely to avoid favored groups getting the rewards.

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      • “Free market” is a fuzzy term that I hate. Economists talk about competitive markets, and define that very carefully: everyone a price taker, perfect information, all costs internalized, etc. Most people who say “free market” assume at least some sort of social intervention, like enforcement of ownership and contracts.

        Competitive markets, and presumably what most people mean when they say free markets, are a means for solving unconstrained optimization problems. However, stable social systems have to solve a constrained economic problem. This is a consequence of one of Cain’s Laws™ that says: “If too many are denied access to too much of the output of a society’s productive capacity for too long, Bad Things happen.” Sane people can debate what the constraints should be and how to impose them; only insane people argue that there shouldn’t be constraints at all.

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      • Nicely said, Michael.

        Competitive is a better term for free, because free misleads people into thinking “no rules of any kind,” when what it really means is “government’s not dictating winners and losers and what you must produce in what quantity and what style and what price.” Internalizing externalities, punishing fraud, etc., do not make a market a non-free market. But getting everyone to understand that is–in my experience–an impossible task, so it’s just better to emphasize competitive markets. Or as I like to put it, competitive within a framework of rules that don’t unduly distort competitive efforts (where the application of “unduly” is, inevitably, open to debate).

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      • Michael,

        Not sure if you are addressing Lee for offering up the term, or me for running with it. I could define my use of his term, but I don’t believe it would run afoul of your warnings. Certainly I assume free markets require the enforcement of property “rights” and contracts, and that they specifically do not allow denying anyone entry into the field.

        Nobody is guaranteed points just for playing, but everyone is allowed into the game — indeed they are actively encouraged to do so. It is a positive sum game and the more players the better.

        If, however, they fail to produce any points (or actively destroy net value), the whole point of markets is to incentivize them to change tactics. Paying them to continue not to produce may be necessary, but obviously is counterproductive in excess.

        I am not sure what your constrained and unconstrained terms add to the discussion, but I certainly, indeed totally, agree that markets are primarily problem solving systems of a particular nature.

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      • Once you think in terms of constraints, it’s a pretty natural jump to “what’s the simplest set of constraints to accomplish what I want?” Electricity at a macro sort of level is one of my things; the creation of electricity markets over the last couple of decades has been educational. It sure sounded simple: we just need a market to match up generators and consumers.

        So you start with an hour-ahead market. But then you discover that’s not enough notice for some generators to get cranked up, and you add a day-ahead market (with limits on how much of the total market can be sold that way). And you discover that demand fluctuates faster than the hourly market, so you have to add a spot market. Then you discover that some generators get much better fuel prices if they make long-term deals, but won’t do that if they don’t know how much electricity they can sell at what prices six months ahead, so you think about adding a long-term market. But that disadvantages many of the small producers that you want to encourage. Then the reliability folks tell you that there’s not enough spinning reserve to handle emergencies, so you have to add a spinning reserve market. Political decisions get made — it’s one thing to dictate to private business, but politically undesirable to dictate to a municipally-owned utility. Then you discover that you need a transmission market so that electricity can be delivered over distances. And that to avoid people gaming the system, you have to tie several of the markets together: you can only buy transmission as part of a deal to deliver power and you can’t sell power to a distant market unless you can simultaneously buy transmission capacity. Of course, given this many moving parts, some of the pieces don’t fit together very well — will the spinning reserves you’re buying in a market be in the right place from a transmission perspective when an emergency failure occurs? Then after 10-15 years, you discover that you want to encourage the dispatch of wind and solar power, but your entire market structure makes it difficult to do that, so wind and solar costs look much higher because so much of their potential power output goes to waste.

        Somewhere here I have a paper written by a couple of economists under the Cato banner who say that, in hindsight, electricity markets are probably less efficient than the old monopoly model. But that given the large amount of change that was forced on the various entities, it’s not politically feasible to go back.

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      • I’m only complaining that it’s an ill-defined term that can mean radically different things to different people. Consider the phrase “and that they [the rules] specifically do not allow denying anyone entry into the field.” The assumption in economics for a competitive market is “no barriers to entry” which is much broader. Not that I think people will stop using the term just because I whine, but it makes me feel better momentarily :^)

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      • Michael,

        That paper sounds interesting; would love a citation if it’s easily come by (otherwise, make me do my own damn work).

        It’s been many years since I was first told by a libertarian-inclined economist that sometimes a hybrid economic structure–a mix of market and command or monopoly–is worse even than a pure command or monopoly system. Not usually, perhaps, but in some cases.

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      • Not a chance that I’m going to find it tonight. However, resolved… turn on Spotlight on my Mac before I go to bed tonight and let it index the crap out of everything overnight. I’m tired of losing stuff that I know is on the hard disk somewhere.

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    • Once you become sensitive to racism, you don’t have to look hard to find it.

      Once you become sensitive to sexism, you don’t have to look hard to find it.

      Once you become sensitive to communist infiltrators, you don’t have to look hard to find them.

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      • The counter is that a person can be so narrow-casted in their definitions of what counts as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry that they never see it.

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    • And more on this: Please don’t assume the truth of the statement “inequality is synonymous with poverty”. That needs to be proven by argument.

      It is entirely possible that American Christians don’t make poverty a priority because the kind of poverty that Jesus was talking about hasn’t existed in American society since the 1940s.

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      • Speaking of things needed to be proven by argument, would you care to cite anything (Scripture or otherwise) that supports the idea that Jesus was concerned about the poor only in absolute terms rather than relative terms? This idea that Christians should feel less obligation to today’s poor because they are better off than the poor of Jesus’ day or even the poor of the 1940s seems to me completely at odds with what Jesus taught.

        Consider the widow’s offering from Luke 21:1-4 – “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Generosity toward the works of God (as represented by the contributions to the temple) is to be measured not by how much is given in quantity, but how much is given relative to how much the giver has.

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      • Scott, a focus on the widow’s proportional giving is not evidence for a concern about improving her relative status. Jesus’s message there was a critique of the idea that giving a lot was sufficient for merit, that merit lies in giving enough (or doing enough, when we shift away from money) to actually be a sacrifice–e.g., give/do ’till you actually feel the pinch.

        Jesus wasn’t even talking about caring for the poor in that passage, so to translate it into a message to “make sure those who are well off absolutely but not well off relatively” is not just a stretch, but requires that we completely change the topic about which Jesus was speaking.

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      • – I’m not sure what you mean by what you put in quotes (“make sure those who are well off absolutely but not well off relatively”), but I concede the point the Jesus wasn’t talking about caring for the poor in the verses I cited.

        I don’t believe, however, that the recipient of the offering in this case compromises my point. As you say, the teaching here is that merit lies in giving or doing enough such that there is a sacrifice. So regardless of the relative condition of the poor over the centuries, there will always be the less fortunate and the more fortunate and “worthiness in the eyes of God” (for lack of a better expression) is to be measured by personal sacrifice on behalf of the less fortunate or by “how much is given relative to how much the giver has” in my words.

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      • Scott,

        My poorly phrased section you quoted was an attempt to differentiate between absolute and relative poverty. The lack of clarity there is on me.

        You make a good response. It’s hard for me to rebut because instead of rejecting what I said you accepted it and built on it. Damn you! ;) My only quibble–and I don’t think this necessarily arises to more than a quibble–is that sacrifice isn’t necessarily monetary, and one might never do a thing for those-who-are-poor-by-contemporary-standards-but-not-by-historical-standards and still make great sacrifices; e.g., devoting one’s effort to working with those who are materially well off but suffering emotionally or cognitively in some way (think, for example, of Elizabeth’s caring for the brain-damaged young girl, which would be good in itself even if the family wasn’t poor). That doesn’t reject giving heavily to the those-who-are-poor-by-contemporary-standards-yadda-yadda, but just adds another dimension of giving.

        There’s also the question–separate, but related–of whether giving to the American poor is as good a thing for a Christian to do as giving to the Sub-Saharan African poor, or giving to a domestic charity vs. reserving what I’m going to give until the next Haitian hurricane and devoting it all to disaster relief, etc. That is, I think both types of giving are legitimate, but to the extent the purpose is to help those most in need of help, there’s at least a legitimate argument that American/European Christians ought not be sacrificing for the American/European poor, but those in the world whose poverty makes first-world poverty pale in comparison. But at this point I may be pretty far off your original claim, so think of this as not an argument aimed at you as just further musings stimulated by your argument.

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      • James –

        Now, you’re really going to damn me, because I agree completely with your quibble. There is nothing about “less fortunate” vs. “more fortunate” that restricts that fortune to monetary in my mind. Jesus consistently referred to the poor in kind with the oppressed and the blind, so he wasn’t constraining his teaching to material wealth either.

        And I see no reason to believe national borders or locality were considerations to how to prioritize Christian charity either, so we’re in agreement there as well.

        Of course, we’re not arguing with each other. My claim was (and is) that Jim has no basis to contend that American Christians may not make caring for today’s poor a priority because today’s poor are not that poor by historical standards because Jesus never saw how good today’s poor have it with their refrigerators and their access to cheap electronics. Now, I’m not claiming Jesus’ teachings should be the basis of public policy (I’m a separation of church and state kind of guy), but if you’re going to invoke Christian tenets, you probably ought to acknowledge that Jesus and the Apostles were communal living types and therefore would have shared all equally regardless of rising prosperity for all.

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      • and I’m going to pretty much agree with everything you’re saying, but I do have one disagreement/alteration.

        At the risk of dredging up the debates from last year’s Charity Symposium, I think there is a specific value to charitable endeavours (whether devoting time, talent or treasure) within your community. Especially from a Christian perspective, working with The Needy and building a greater community that, at least in part, diminishes socio-economic boundaries between people is worthwhile and in keeping with the desires of God (and, of course, it’s good for secular reasons, too, I’m just sticking within the framework of the OP here).

        That doesn’t mean that charitable projects in your community are more important, necessarily, just that there is a certain type of importance that can’t be discounted.

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      • – I think I could make a pretty compelling argument that diminishing socio-economic boundaries between people meets the definition of serving the less fortunate under the “oppressed” header, so yeah, building community locally is important.

        That said, debating the comparative importance/value of different types of giving strikes me as a predominantly worldly rather than spiritual concern. Ranking the effectiveness, impact or relative merit of charity seems to me pridefully besides the point.

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      • Jonathan,

        I agree. I think the distinction between first-world and third-world poverty was focused simply on the dimension of alleviating poverty (or at least its effects). If that’s what a person’s primary goal is, then they should probably give their aid abroad. But once you bring in other dimensions the calculus changes; and I think here you’ve brought in another dimension.

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    • … because we’re winning.

      In my faith, we say that in every generation there
      is an Amalek… (someone who would stamp out
      all the Jewish people).

      Well, for the present at least, we know who those
      are who would wish to reduce widespread affluence.
      Who would have us return to serfdom, ignorance and inequality.

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  5. In a completely unsurprising development, I am going to agree with my brother.

    Christianity seems to deplore materialism a bit too much to do anything seriously against poverty sometimes. I think that a lot of Christians do sincerely care about how the poor suffer and do good charity work among the poor. Some dedicate their entire lives to the poor. But there still seems to be a concept that poverty is ennobling in certain ways or leads to an easier grace. The rewards in Christianity were always in the afterlife. It seems to me (as on outsider) that part of Christianity’s message to the poor is that God made them poor for a purpose. I consider this to be grade-A bullshit. Please correct me if I am wrong on my view.

    Then there are the Calvinists with their theories of pre-destination and the idea that material wealth on earth was a sign of being in God’s grace. The conclusion one must draw is that the next inference is that any suffering and poverty comes because you are not among the chosen. Then there is the development of Gospel of Prosterity. I do know that a lot of people on the Christian Left reject this version explicitly.

    But it seems to me that part of relieving poverty is absolutely material and does involve creature comforts along with ensuring that there is no hunger, homelessness (except someone who is a vagabond by choice), etc. This might be a slightly consumerist view of things but anti-consumerism is one aspect of the left that I never understood completely. It is where my inner-libertarian kicks in a bit.

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    • Poverty is ultimately about a lack of material goods and services, both necessary and unnecessary. The rich and middle classes have housing, food, clothing, access to healthcare, education, consumer goods and more and the poor do not. The elimination of poverty means increasing access to goods and services. This ultimately requires that the economy be good and wages high. Public and private welfare measures can do a lot to alleviate poverty, universal healthcare and public education are great ways to get rid of poverty but you can’t do it without an economy. Its why the USSR and other Communist states failed, there was no economy.

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    • In America, you also have the weird emotional connection between poverty and sin. It goes back to our roots, to Calivinists and Puritans, and it’s been reinforced in many fashions since — but deep in the American psyche, you’re poor because you deserve it.

      Because you’re lazy, or on drugs, or shiftless, or didn’t pay attention in school — now days it’s all ‘makers and takers’ but it boils down to the belief that virtuousness is shown by wealth and status, and if you lack either it’s from moral failings.

      Then of course there’s the whole Prosperity Doctrine…

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      • I agree. I don’t think it is necessarily a uniquely American idea/thought pattern though maybe Europe has largely gotten it but we still have our puritanical/Calvinist streak kicking in.

        If you read, The Rise of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, you can see a lot of the early Victorians and Utilitarians had thoughts that were similar to smears against “welfare queens”. They also felt that the poor were leading secret lives of luxury and hedonistic abandon from their begging.

        That being said, I don’t think the left-wing answer should be that we decry materialism. I agree with my brother that poverty is about a lack of goods and services both necessary and recreational. Wanting everyone to live in some kind of hippie shire and commune is very unrealistic.

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      • In the early 1890s, there was a depression in the United States and many people were struggling economically. The main Protestant charity organization in New York City was known for being very tight-fisted with who got aid and strove to make sure that only the “deserving” poor got aid. Getting aid often required a lot of unncessary hard work. They thought that Catholic and Jewish groups or even rich people like J.P. Morgan were way too indiscriminate with their charity. Source: Gotham: A History of New York City.

        Likewise, the entire Victorian workhouse was based on the idea that when giving aid to the poor it needed to be made unbearable as possible so poor people won’t seek too much aid.

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      • Hmm:

        Reagan and ‘welfare queens’. Romney and ‘makers and takers’. Op-eds about “lucky duckies” who don’t pay income taxes (because they’re so freaking poor). The entire “rags to riches” genre.

        Let’s see — Florida’s drug-testing of welfare recipients, the laser-like focus on WHAT people buy with food stamps….

        You’d have to be blind to 200+ years of America political tradition, literature, and frankly the way we handled poverty for our entire history to NOT see a significant strain of “Poor people are poor because they’re lazy/sinful”

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      • I also think the fact that it took Congress to the 1890s to pass laws and regulations relating to bankruptcy even though the Constitution expressely gives them authority to is pretty telling.

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      • There’s a big difference here between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics have enough focus on what you do as a Christian to lead them to give serious effort to poverty. Protestant sects vary more widely, though, because at their core is the emphasis on whether you are saved by faith. At one extreme is the vision that God has selected certain people, and that’s that, and what they do henceforth isn’t particularly relevant.* Less extreme is a vision that, yes maybe that’s a good thing for a Christian to do, but my salvation isn’t dependent on it, only on whether I’m born again. And only some Protestants say, “if you’re really born again, then you have a duty to obey Christ’s command to care for others–you may not lose your salvation for not doing so, but as a Christian, why would you not do what Christ tells us to do?”

        That’s excluding the prosperity gospel folks, who I think are fairly describable as heretics, and those individual Christians–regardless of sect–who distinguish deserving and undeserving poor as a matter of personal convenience or cultural dominance over their faith.

        some believe that wor

        _____________________________
        * That’s a cheap version of Reformed and Lutheran doctrine, of course. They do believe that if God has saved you you will lead a godly life–you can do no other. But it provides grounds for assuming that whatever it is you actually do, that must be the godly life, and if you don’t feel particularly compelled to do something else, then it must not be necessary.

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      • Serious question.

        Can someone truly be a heretic in the United States? I suppose they can be shunned and kicked out of their congregations or maybe ex-communicated but the first Amendment allows them to form their own church, call it as they please, and try to attract followers.

        There are a lot of preachers who are very successful and preach the Prosperity Doctrine to varying degrees. Joel Orsteen, Cresto A. Dollar, etc.

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      • ND,

        I’d say the concept of heresy has no relationship at all to legal/political regimes. Sure, a particular regime can take it upon itself to declare a heresy, but at it’s root heresy is a theological/doctrinal concept, not a legal/political one.

        And of course it’s hard to make a wholly objective case about heresy. Many Christians would call the Mormons heretics, but I’d say instead that they actually have a related but distinctly different religion based on a superceding set of scriptures (just as both Christians and Muslims accept the Hebrew scriptures, but ultimately rely on different superceding scriptures). The prosperity gospel folks use the same set of scriptures as other Christians, but get a story out of it that is wildly at odds with what can really plausibly be dredged out of it. I’m inclined to think that Calvinists are terribly horribly misguided in their predestinationist beliefs, but–as long as one is willing to focus more heavily on the letters of Paul than on the gospels themselves–a not-wholly implausible case can be made for their position. Prosperity gospel ideas, though? It’s so far off that I sincerely suspect the great majority of prosperity gospel ministers are purposeful frauds; just economic entrepreneurs for whom religion is their particular market niche.

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      • The Prosperity Doctrine is really just the flip side of the belief that the poor are poor because of sloth, greed, or some other moral failing or sin.

        If you are virtuous, God will reward. It’s a compelling argument to some. The spiritual lottery, so to speak. Proclaim your faith in God and you will be rich, he will reward you.

        I understand it’s a pretty nicely growing concept, too.

        We’re a weird society. I suppose the elderly are rather lucky that our drive to venerate our elders is stronger than our drive to look down on the poor, else SS would be far worse off.

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      • This is half-true, there certainly is a reactionary belief in the culpability of the poor. However, there is also a progressive strain in America that infantilizes the poor, treats them as eternal victims of the supposedly-oppressive power structures, and views poor people as subjects on which to test the dominant social theory of the day.

        One of the reasons why we are so bad at crafting intelligent policy responses to poverty is that the political process is dominated by an eternal battle between the right and the left, each trying to use the issue of poverty as part of a larger morality tale about the superiority of their viewpoint.

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      • The “left,” like “the right” or “in America,” is a vague term. There are certainly elements of the left that support direct transfers over mandatory social welfare schemes, just like there have been elements on the right that supported things like the EITC.

        However, the history of the progressive movement embodies a certain paternalist approach to the poor; this goes back to the days when progressives supported things like prohibition and family planning.

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      • I thought the left just wanted to give them money.

        No, you’ve got it all wrong. The left just wants to stick it to the rich, and giving the money to the poor merely gives them moral cover.

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      • I’d say “paternalist” is a sort of vague word that goes thrown around a lot. I agree some things can be paternalist but its mostly just thrown out as a undefined insult or explaining where the actual paternalism is. Have progressives( and Conservatives and especially religious types of all sorts) been paternalist….hell yes they have. But doesn’t mean everything suggested by any liberal or leftie is therefore paternalist.

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      • No, you’ve got it all wrong. The left just wants to stick it to the rich, and giving the money to the poor merely gives them moral cover.

        Do they? Got anything besides mind-reading? I find telepathy so…underwhelming as an example.

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      • “The left just wants to stick it to the rich, and giving the money to the poor merely gives them moral cover.”

        Well, the money has to go somewhere and giving money to poor brown or black people (proportionally) seems to piss off rich white people, so that’s a bonus.

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      • Uh oh, your joke-o-meter is on the fritz!


        Damn, that would have been a much better punch line!

        Obviously nobody’s going to pay to see me do standup comedy anytime soon.

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      • Liberalism these days just means anything that pisses off conservatives, like making sure everyone has access to health care and protecting the right to vote.

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      • At one extreme is the vision that God has selected certain people, and that’s that, and what they do henceforth isn’t particularly relevant.

        I was raised in that kind of church and it’s the main reason I’m an atheist now.

        I can remember being a kid, like middle school age, and just not really feeling like any of it was real. I could and did mouth all the right words, but inside I knew I didn’t really believe it. I would even pray for the Holy Spirit to light the spark in my heart.

        But it never happened. And then when our catechism education turned to weightier topics in high school like predestination, I came to the conclusion that I simply wasn’t part of the elect and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Or maybe that the Baptist farmer I worked for one summer was right and I was in by virtue of infant baptism. Or most likely that it was ALL a crock.

        So… thanks a lot, Calvin!

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    • No organization has done more work against poverty than the Catholic Church. No one has created more hospitals and schools, donated more food, shelter, and clothing, raised more orphans, or responded to more disasters. Other denominations have done plenty too. This idea that Christianity has neglected poverty is simply incorrect.

      And while some few are called to a life of voluntary poverty, that doesn’t get in the way of recognizing the value of corporal acts of mercy. Just like some few are called to a life of celibate chastity, but that doesn’t discourage Christians from having big families. There is a huge difference between renouncing wealth and denouncing wealth.

      Also, see Jim’s reply to Lee (currently comment #3), which was really eloquent.

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    • I’m sure we’ve all heard the old saw about politicians passing laws against crime because they don’t want the competition. Well I see a similar dynamic among certain Christians who decry government welfare and systemic economic reforms because it would deny them the opportunity to practice charity and therefore get brownie points with God. To many, the poor and others in extremis are too useful to countenance reducing their numbers.

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      • I think its a bit more insidious than that. Before the welfare state, charity and aid were great ways to enforce traditional morality. If you wanted charity than you needed to behave in a certain way. For various reasons including laziness, governments are usually unwilling to use welfare programs as a way to enforce traditional morality. Sometimes they try like the drug-test attempt in Florida but its pretty rare. For belivers in traditional morality, the welfare state is a threat because it allows for the distribution of aid with less strings attached.

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      • Lee:

        A fun little example of that sort of thinking can be found in the little baptismal carnivals. You know, a nice, normal carnival or festival — often held by a local church (Baptists are the most frequent offender, IIRC) — in which children are neatly separated from their parents and baptized.

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      • I think that what Rod said is horrible, some of the cheapest anti-religious slander I’ve read. But to Lee’s point, if you believe that traditional morality helps people, why shouldn’t you promote it while doing acts of charity? If you believe that no-strings-attached aid ultimately degenerates the recipient, what’s wrong with opposing it? It’s not a matter of being afraid of the competition, it’s a matter of doing the best you can for somone body and soul. And I’ve never heard of a soup kitchen requiring forced conversions, anyway. The goal is to provide a spiritual opportunity for the people you’re helping.

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      • Pinky, if you believe traditional morality is helpful than obviously you should help people. The historical record is enough to make me dubious about this proposition if only because the amount of strings seems to be disproportionate to the aid given. In a pluralistic society, you also run into the problem of whose traditional morality is used.

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      • “because the amount of strings seems to be disproportionate to the aid given”

        Never in any charity I’ve worked with. Not even in crisis pregnancy centers. What examples are you thinking of?

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      • Pinky i know of homeless shelters, drug rehabs, supported housing programs that require attendance at religious services provided by the organization. No attendance, no service.

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      • If we’re to compare to other forms of aid, can we ask what strings, if any, are attached to the other forms of aid?

        Maybe being forced to listen to a no-money-required time-share sales pitch to a place that doesn’t exactly exist is less onerous than other things that are being asked from other agencies.

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      • “We’ll give you food, but only if you come to Jesus” is hardly charity. It’s bribery, at best.

        If that is true, what does it say about:

        “We’ll give you food stamps, but only if you spend them on these pre-approved items.”

        or “We’ll give you a place to live, but only if you live in this specific block of public housing.”

        or “We’ll give your kids an education, but only if they attend this specific public school.”

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      • Pinky, i have a problem with mandating attendance since some of the people that need help aren’t in the majority religion that is pushing the mandate. Our social service system has many private entities and parts. In many parts of the country there are not multiple options for various services. In places without many options, or even more than one, people who don’t fit the religion of the provider are either boned or have to submit to a religion they don’t believe in. That has happened at one of the local homeless shelters. But if you are cold and hungry, why should the price be having to listen to someones else religious views. I don’t think that is a healthy social service system, that has served to marginalize various minority populations. An example would be gay homeless youth. They certainly weren’t welcome or could tolerate most religious shelters or services.

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      • jr…If you are suggesting that giving people food stamps but then limiting what they can buy is not a good idea, then i generally agree. Its a shame mostly republicans keep pushing those limits.

        Public housing….ummm you do know that there is a lot of housing aid that goes directly to people who can rent where they want. Public housing has generally been built where there wasn’t enough cheap housing for people.

        You have heard of charter schools, right?

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      • Public housing has generally been built where there wasn’t enough cheap housing for people.

        Greg,

        I’m in general agreement with your comment, but very doubtful about the quoted part. Public housing was in part an attempt to improve upon tenements (not always successfully, obviously) and in part an attempt to keep undesirables ghettoized (in the “locally congregated” sense of the term, not the “urban shithole” sense, although they often turned into that).

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      • “We’ll give you food stamps, but only if you spend them on these pre-approved items.”

        It’s something I rather oppose. The Democratic party agrees with me. Then again, strapping young bucks with T-bones is an old Reagan smear.

        Now, if the government is handing out actual food — well, you take what they’ve got.

        or “We’ll give you a place to live, but only if you live in this specific block of public housing.”

        I’m rather against that one as well. I’d rather do rent subsidies that provide housing, although I will say if you’re actually PROVIDING housing, then obviously they’ve got to live where your units are. Housing isn’t as fungible as cash, you know.

        or “We’ll give your kids an education, but only if they attend this specific public school.”

        You mean “the one near where you live”? I’d have to agree with that one. You know, pragmatism. Free public education is provided by building and operating schools with tax dollars. You go to the one near you, unless there’s a darn good reason not to.

        Which seems to be the nut there, really. Is the government providing a service? Or cash (or a cash equivalent) for you to PURCHASE a service?

        With the charities in question, they’re welcome to attach all the strings they want. But the specific strings they attach make it pretty obvious bringing you to Jesus is more important than feeding you, in this example.

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      • Greg – Government funding of faith-based organizations is a different subject. I don’t believe that a recipient of federal aid should be pressured into religious attendance to receive it. But it really is different than the question of privately-funded aid.

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      • James- yeah, there is a long history to public housing. Certainly some of it was about providing decent housing where there was none and some of it was putting “those” people someplace else. I don’t think there is anything inherently ideological about public housing anymore than public roads, ariports, fire departments, etc, which seemed to be the gist of JR’s questions.

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      • Pinky- People have a bit more choice about a time share than a homeless shelter or other social services. Its a weak comparison. There is a long history of the majority religion, in the western world that is Christianity in all its forms, pushing, cajoling and forcing Christianity on everybody else. Plenty of jews, mulsims, hindus, and every other belief of indigenous peoples got somewhere between intense pressure, the occasional “convert or die” speech or completely wiped out due to being different.

        I think if your background is in being part of the dominant majority religion you don’t see how minority groups feels about ” just sit through it”.

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      • I admit to being a bit glib. All of these issues are complicated and deserve consideration in and of themselves. However, my comment was a follow-up to the idea that I stated above: that the plight of the poor in this country is often an excise for conservative do-gooders, who are convinced that what the poor need is some good old-fashioned moral instruction, and progressive do-gooders, who are convinced that what the poor need is the enlightened hand of technocratic bureaucracy, to duke it out.

        Both sides err to the extent that they completely disregard the other. There is a role for private religious charity and there is a role for government intervention. And in practice, the two actually work together fairly often. There are lots of religious people who are in the trenches helping people. It seems odd to disparage them, because they don’t comport to your particular political and cultural world view.

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      • I don’t think there is anything inherently ideological about public housing anymore than public roads, ariports, fire departments, etc,

        I don’t know about “ideological,” but housing is in the set of private goods (think of clothing, pens, coffee cups), which are generally assumed to be provided efficiently by the market.

        The others, not being private goods, are more of a mixed bag, consisting of toll goods and what might be called quasi-public goods (goods with substantial positive externalities), and so are not assumed to be as efficiently provided by markets.

        So I think there’s room there for a distinction that would make some people legitimately more favorable towards public roads than public housing.

        And comparing the availability of housing in the U.S. to the availability in countries where most housing is built by government, rather than the private sector, adds support to a general favoritism toward private housing markets.

        But of course minimally decent housing is among the pricier of private goods–even a minimally decent car, one of the bigger purchases most people make, pales before the cost of housing. So it’s reasonable–in my mind–to argue that the best approach is a private market in housing with some public assistance, whether that’s done through the U.S. model or the Austrian model.

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      • Can we at least *COMPARE* the strings? We’re not even comparing what’s required of someone who hopes to acquire social services from the government.

        Maybe all you have to do is go in, sign on a piece of paper, and get an envelope. That’d be pretty sweet, compared to being made to sit and listen to a sermon.

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      • I can’t really disagree with what you have said which is of course deeply disconcerting. That must mean either you are a good liberal or i’m a good libertarian.

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      • Greg – I’m willing to meet you halfway and say that forced conversions are wrong. Will you meet me and say that there aren’t a lot of forced conversions taking place in the modern American private charitable social services?

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      • Pinky- No i don’t think there are many forced conversions going on. I still don’t think listening to sermons is a string that should be part of a social service system. However i do know , having worked in it for many years, that religious charities will always be part of our system. I used to work for a religious charity that didn’t push Catholicism at all. If they had i wouldn’t have worked there nor would they have likely had me.

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      • I don’t think there is anything inherently ideological about public housing anymore than public roads, ariports, fire departments, etc, which seemed to be the gist of JR’s questions.

        You are right in the sense that all of these things are in fact inherently ideological, as is almost everything that comes out of a policy process.

        Every aspect of public housing is ideological, from its design (see the Garden Cities movement of urban design and its efforts to rescue the poor from the depravity of tenements) to its location (the book American Project has a very enlightening discussion of how all the projects in Chicago ended getting placed in certain neighborhoods).

        I’m making a very simple and what ought to be fairly non-controversial point here: that government poverty interventions are at least every bit paternalistic and manipulative as private religious charity efforts.

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      • I think neither of us is being ideal-types. That is, you’re being a “bad” liberal and I’m being a bad libertarian. But since I rarely trust any ideal-type ideology, I’m inclined to say there’s a pretty decent chance we’re both being good ideological syncretists.

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      • No i don’t think there are many forced conversions going on.

        Come to Texas. The Baptists still occasionally baptize some kiddies without permission. And I believe the Mormons do so for the dead.

        Again, with charities — they can place whatever strings they wish on it. I just find it hard to believe ‘feeding the hungry’ is your main motive if they’ve got to kowtow to Jesus first.

        Now, offering the food and having a chapel right there for anyone who wishes to go hear about Jesus? Fine by me. There’s a pretty obvious distinction between compelling behavior for food and offering more than food, if it’s desired.

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      • I’m making a very simple and what ought to be fairly non-controversial point here: that government poverty interventions are at least every bit paternalistic and manipulative as private religious charity efforts.

        How is the EITC paternalistic? SNAP — at least prior to the massive push to ‘oversee’ the purchases by conservatives? Medicaid? CHIP? Social Security? Subsidized school lunches?

        All of those are “poverty interventions”, you know.

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      • JR- I don’t’ think everything is inherently ideological although i can see why people might argue that. I think how you are using paternalistic is exactly the vague way that people mistakenly do so. I think you are defining it so widely that anything offered by gov is paternalistic which makes the word almost meaningless. Building housing for people is not paternalist in any but the widest and weakest sense of the word. Every housing development is planned whether it is a pod of McMansions or a public project. That is how a plot of land gets developed, someone has to plot out where the houses, roads, playgrounds and stop signs go. If every development in the world paternalistic?

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      • Good Samaritan….ummm urrrr…..I know all about the Good Humor man. He gladly exchanged cash money for all manner of tasty frozen confections. A free exchange we mutually benefited from and which lead to heavenly chocolate and dairy related experiences at least on my part.

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      • the best approach is a private market in housing with some public assistance, whether that’s done through the U.S. model or the Austrian model.

        You know who had a really effective way of finding space for more housing?

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      • at least prior to the massive push to ‘oversee’ the purchases by conservatives

        I’m pretty sure that the argument that ensuring that the money be spent on food (or whatever) for The Children is one of those bipartisan things.

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      • The EITC is not particularly paternalistic, but the EITC is also a classical liberal reform to the welfare programs that existed at the time that was based, in part, on Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, was signed into law by Gerald Ford and expanded under Reagan.

        I’m not trying to stretch the concept of paternalism to make a political point. When the government gives you a housing or education voucher, it is acting less paternalistically then if it assigns you a place in a public housing project or public school. And when it gives you a straight cash transfer it is acting less paternalistically than if it gives you a voucher. Historically, the progressive movement has championed more paternalist policies and resisted reforms in the opposite direction. I’m not making up the left’s opposition to charter schools and school vouchers.

        As for housing, again this is just history. Look at housing projects and ask yourself why they look like housing projects. Because their based on the garden cities movement that typified early 20th century urban planning. The idea was that cities were crowded and dirty and led people towards all sorts of depravities. So planners destroyed existing neighborhoods and replaced them with super-blocks containing sterile green spaces and large tower blocks.

        So no, not all real estate development is paternalistic. However, there is a huge difference between a private developer buying a plot of land, putting up a building that conforms to the existing zoning regulations, and offering units on the marker and someone like Robert Moses being empowered to raze entire neighborhoods and replace them with highways and huge apartment complexes.

        Again, this isn’t political name-calling. This is actual history. You can research 20th century urban planning movements and their emphasis on planning as a means to social progress.

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      • I’m pretty sure that the argument that ensuring that the money be spent on food (or whatever) for The Children is one of those bipartisan things

        Oh, I dunno. I don’t remember Clinton running on young bucks and T-bones, and certainly the current angst over SNAP recipients eating lobster isn’t coming from the left. (Nor the desire to cut SNAP, for that matter).

        But I do recall some desire that food stamps be spent on “food” (like not “booze or cigarettes”) which does have bipartisan support, whereas the people screaming about “what sort” of food seem to have a bit of a conservative bent.

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      • I’m not trying to stretch the concept of paternalism to make a political point. When the government gives you a housing or education voucher, it is acting less paternalistically then if it assigns you a place in a public housing project or public school.

        So just a check here: Building and running a school free to all residents = paternalistic, whereas given them cash to attend any school not paternalistic?

        Is providing a police service “paternalistic”? Would it be less so if we were offered cash vouchers for the private security force of our own choosing?

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      • Yeah the EITC was signed by R’s and supported by both sides. Very true. What about now? R’s are less happy with teh EITC and D’s still support it. Part of cow refuse about the “OMG 49% of people don’t pay taxes” was due to the effects of the EITC. R’s were freaking about the very effects of something they used to support.

        Vouchers/School choice. Yeah lots of liberals don’t support them or have been suspicious. But if you are going to say that is solely paternalism then you are falling into the political name calling stuff you said you didn’t want to. You certainly wouldn’t be fairly describing the reasons L’s don’t like those things.

        Urban design of public housing in the 70’s was often based on older urban design. That is true in some places, i agree. But then what you are saying is that when the gov did things private industry had done previously that transforms into paternalism. If gov copies the private market it is paternalistic. How does that make sense? If you are against public housing in general that is one argument. But saying the gov actively designed the housing they built is silly since if they were building it someone had to design it. And they based it on popular theories that middle class and rich people liked so they doesn’t seem like treating poorly in theory.

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      • Depending on your locale and your pater, certain police forces are very paternalistic: they search your room for weed, administer you a beating, then leave when you really need them.

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      • , a very last ditch attempt to approve on tenements. Jacob Riis opposed government housing and personally preferred to improve the tenements through enforcement of building codes. That is through regulation rather than providing the service. I don’t think that governments in the United States engaged in directly building housing until the Great Depression.

        I’m iffy on the last one. There was an element of ghettoization in government housing but at the same time, other policies besides government housing also enforced ghettoization. Some of these policies like red-lining were from the government and others like restrictive covenants were private.

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      • :I think that what Rod said is horrible, some of the cheapest anti-religious slander I’ve read.

        That may very well be, Pinky, but it’s not something I just pulled out of my ass. I got it from a fairly prominent (as in theologian, not just some dude) writer on a Catholic site. Specifically, that government welfare displaced the church and deprived Christians of the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity. I thought it was pretty horrible too.

        And then there was the spokesman for some prison ministry I caught on the radio one day, fairly gushing over the opportunity to preach to this captive audience. Not a word about the possible injustice of an exploding prison population, just all praise be for delivering these men into our tender clutches.

        Mind you, I’m not talking anything like all Christians here. I thought I was pretty explicit about it being “a certain kind” of Christian. Likely the same type that will insist that they’re being horribly oppressed in modern day America. You know, War on Christmas and all that nonsense.

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  6. If works of the poor were valuable, things would be different. Its the repeated juncture that affluence fails for all its riches.

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  7. Yet another great piece, ES.

    The public fight against poverty is an odd one, I think. This is partially because poverty itself seems a symptom rather than a cause. It’s like being against hate, or evil, or death.

    But also, it is that poverty seems to be a lens through which we spin our ideological/theological thought. Usually when I see people speak about the poor, they are actually speaking of different things altogether — and usually, it is the failings of those not ourselves: the failing of un-industrious “takers,” the failing of those who oppose us politically to care enough about the underprivileged, etc. It’s pretty rare that I see someone who talks about the poor actually talk about the poor. And in those rare instances, they are (like you, ES) those who have to some extent dedicated their lives to those hampered by poverty’s cudgel.

    If I had one slight (very slight) quibble, it would be with this first line:

    “If you imagine the major issues pushed by American Christians qua Christians, poverty alleviation probably doesn’t come to mind.”

    As a son, husband and father of loved ones who have devoted a great deal of time to Christian ministries over the years, I find this not surprising at all. When I think of those on cable news using the banner of Christianity as a marketing slogan, then yes, I see your point; when I think of loved ones who actually quietly devote their lives to Christ, then I must say that when I think of Christian ministries I think first and foremost of attending to the poorest among us.

    Anywho, that’s just a long-winded way of thanking your for writing this. I hope that you continue to write about the topic during Poverty Awareness Month (I had no idea there was such a thing) and beyond here at OT.

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    • I agree with you fully, Tod. In the lives of practicing Christians, especially those who take on mission work (however many questions may be raised about the efficacy thereof) one does tend to find plenty of focus on poverty and privation. I did intend to refer to popular media representations of Christian concerns, which tend to be pretty highly politicized and shaped to match the tenets of whichever group or party is foisting the banner. Should’ve been clearer about that!

      And thanks so much for your kind words. It’s great writing here! We have a fantastic community of readers, and of course, select company as writers. :)

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