The Incomplete Politics of Poverty
Where Obama and Romney both get poverty right. And where they get it wrong.
We’re about two months away from the next presidential election. Now that all the players are in position, expect to be inundated with speeches, ads and debates in what will not likely be a positive and uplifting process.
This year more than most, the candidates are going to be talking about the economy, the unemployment rate and taxes. A lot of the discussion has been fueled by the Occupy movement and its references to the 1% and the growing gap between the top and bottom of the income groups. Why was there a bail out of Wall Street when so many other people are suffering? Why is the income gap growing? Why is the poverty rate around 15%? That’s more than 45 million people. And the most important question, at least for the candidates: who’s to blame?
Scripture is very clear about how we should treat the poor and the consequences if we don’t. Not many people argue that we should be seeking solutions for poverty What we don’t hear as much about causes of poverty. At least, we don’t hear about all the reasons. What we usually get out of politicians are narrow, small-minded answers that ignore the bigger picture. And a partial understanding of a cause will lead, at best, to a partial solution.
The Bible groups poverty’s causes into three general categories: calamity, oppression, and personal responsibility.
The Bible has numerous stories about those suffering from lack of resources due to drought, famine, disaster, and disease. Lamentations 4:9 says, “Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.” We don’t hear much about this today, especially in the U.S., because we have the wealth, resources, insurance, and infrastructure to recover from disaster.
Another form of calamity—one we might be more familiar with—is the death of a family member. In the Bible, work was nearly impossible without a male figure. That’s why the reference to being poor is synonymous with being a widow or orphan. If the father died it became much more difficult for the rest of the family to survive. The plight of single mothers and orphans can be alleviated by certain government programs in place today, but for those who seek to fix poverty, it remains one of the chief obstacles.
Another reason for poverty given in Scripture is oppression. When people don’t have the power to stand up for themselves it’s easy for those in authority to take advantage of them. Think of invading armies and corrupt rulers stealing, cheating or offering high interest loans and unjust wages. Proverbs makes several references to the rich ruling over the poor and wicked men dominating the helpless. Here are two typical examples:
Proverbs 13:23 – “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”
Isaiah 10:1-2 – “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their right and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”
It’s impossible to read through more than a few verses in Proverbs without getting to a passage about how laziness, idleness, drunkenness, selfishness, and foolishness lead to ruin. It reads like a discourse on how good behavior leads directly to success and lack of character causes poverty.
Proverbs 10:4 – Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.
Proverbs 23:20-21 – Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”
Outside of Proverbs though, most of the passages about the poor are not negative in this way.
What Obama and Romney Say
President Obama generally subscribes to the oppressive cause for poverty and suggests creating better systems and increasing funding. When asked about reducing poverty he said, “I make that commitment with humility because we’ve got a lot of work to do economically in this country to bring about a more just and fair economy.” After talking about expanding the Harlem Children’s Zone, a program designed to help struggling families, he said, “It can’t be done cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year…We will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to.” The White House website lists program after program to combat poverty, each costing billions and billions of dollars.
Romney, on the other side, focuses on personal moral failure and had this to say about solving poverty: “We believe in hard work and education. We love opportunity… The 1960’s welfare programs created a culture of poverty. Some think we won that battle when we reformed welfare, but the liberals haven’t given up. At every turn, they try to substitute government largesse for individual responsibility.”
They’re both right. They’re both incomplete. The answer isn’t a one step process that fits in a five second sound bite, slogan, or political zinger, but involves a nuanced solution that involves everybody, including families and churches and businesses and government.
Scripture suggests that not all who are poor are oppressed, and neither does being poor automatically make that person more godly. This doesn’t negate our duty to serve and help, but it does make the one-size-fits-all solution from politicians seem shortsighted and insufficient. We can’t just throw money at a problem and make it go away. It helps those that need it and harms those it enables. Good systems are full of corrupt people and corrupt systems have good people. Neither can we just dismiss the poor by saying they brought it upon themselves and refuse to offer help or increase spending on the right programs.
We must use caution when we hear either presidential candidate espouse only one cause of poverty, because their solution will be equally short-sighted. The Bible is not narrow in its assessment of the plight of widows and orphans, nor is its prescription for how to help one of half-measures. The problem of poverty is multi-faceted. Our response to it must be equally so.