Christians and Poverty (II)
In our last segment on the matter of true poverty and the mindset of both the individual Christian as well as the local congregation, we commented that Scripture is clear that we are to be concerned to the point of action regarding the widow, orphan, and poor. What we are asking from an ethical viewpoint is what constitutes true poverty in North America. That is to say, we don’t want to be poor stewards with God’s money and throw it away frivolously on those who claim to be poor, but who, in reality, are simply poor managers of their money.
For example, a man might make a reasonable salary, but squander it by abusing controlled substances (illegal drugs), alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, and lottery tickets. This person isn’t truly biblically poor; he’s simply a poor manager of his money. And while it might be helpful, in some sense, to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, it is not necessarily a badge of honor. Surely, there are those who need subsidized housing, but someone must pay for this and usually it’s the U.S. taxpayer that must pay for government subsidized housing.
From the Emergent church movement and liberal theology (actually, they’re one and the same), the attitude is pretty much the same as leftwing Democratic economic policies, which are basically this: income redistribution. We’ll come back to this in a moment. When I speak with a number of my colleagues—not all mind you—they are, by and large, clueless when it comes to basic economics. This coupled with a misguided notion of Christian charity can be the scam artist’s delight. You see, the intentions are good and admirable, but we are called upon in Scripture to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16).
As I mention last installment, we tend to operate on stereotypes. We see the panhandler at the end of the off ramp of the freeway and we conclude that a large segment of American society is like this. It isn’t. Numbers and stats can be wax noses, but they can also be quite helpful in making good decisions. We noted last time that somewhere between 1-4% of Americans live at the poverty rate. It’s possible that you heard higher numbers and it’s also possible that if you live in Southern California where I live those numbers are substantially higher due to the inclusion of illegal aliens, who are not U.S. citizens and, contrary to popular opinion—even among some in the PCA—they are criminals. They have broken the law. It never ceases to amaze me that when illegals are interviewed on TV they contend that they are not criminals, but rather that they are merely people looking for a better life. The latter is quite possibly true while the former isn’t. It’s more than disheartening that those who call themselves Christians cannot distinguish between legal and illegal aliens; indeed, who do not seem to have any grasp on the word “illegal.” Be that as it may, we do want to delve further into what precisely we know about those who are, ostensibly, at the poverty level in the U.S.
Last time, I criticized the Consumer Price Index because it has not been properly adjusted for inflation. Yet another bias of the CPI is that “it counts only those things that most people are likely to buy. At first glace, the CPI’s method seems plausible until we contemplate that what people will actually buy depends upon the price, “so new products that are very expensive do not get included in the index until after their prices come down to a level where most people can afford them.” In the early days of mobile phones, the handsets were large and the costs were sometimes $8.00/minute for a call. Such a deal! Sowell goes on to explain in his book on basic econ that the CPI is inaccurate for no other reason than “Everything cannot be included in an index, both because of the enormous time and money this would require and because ‘everything’ itself changes over time with the creation of new products and the disappearance of old ones.”
You might be asking yourself at this point: So what does all this mean? That’s a good question, because it goes to the heart of the matter when we’re trying to decide what constitutes true poverty. Ben Stein comments that “Since the poverty rate has never been adjusted for real improvements in our standard of living, it’s a dubious statistic for comparing the poor of today with the poor of yesterday.” In other words, it isn’t always accurate to measure the poverty rate with income. What should be used then? Consumption actually gives us a more accurate picture.
What kind of “snapshot” do we get if we use consumption rather than income as a measure of welfare? Well, as you might imagine, it’s different, but as you might not imagine it’s also eye-opening. For example, “The poor today spend between two and three dollars for every dollar they earn, which is why looking at consumption patterns suggests a very different picture of those supposedly living in poverty.” In dealing both with members in financial difficulties as well as those outside the congregation, local churches should take this into consideration.
The most obvious question at this point is: How can the poor spend so much more than they earn? In a study that you can download from heritage.org, Robert Rector documents that the Census Bureau’s report on income and poverty in America omits many types of both cash and non-cash income such as Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing. These “perks” add up to approximately a half-trillion dollars of government aid to the underprivileged and elderly. We also need to be discriminatory—in the good sense—and realize that many people that are lumped into the “poverty” category based on income are retirees living off Social Security and their savings or full time students who are notoriously poor.
Nevertheless, from a consumption point of view, the price of “essentials” in the U.S. has dropped rather precipitously, leaving impoverished people with more discretionary income for others kinds of goods and services. Here is where Christians need to be cautious. There are a number of people, who, for various reasons already mentioned, actually have adequate discretionary income—provided that they spend it on essentials and not on luxuries. Part of the task that the modern Church has both with members and non-members alike is teaching people to be good stewards with money. There should be occasions for church members to receive excellent advice on spending habits, savings, tithing, and budgeting. In fact, in all likelihood, even if those who are truly poor were to receive some sound instruction about the practical aspects of using discretionary money, then there would probably be less poverty. It would not be eradicated, but it would be less. This is all the more crucial since it is true that since the 1970s, the proportion of total consumption that poor Americans devote to food, shelter, and clothing has fallen almost 20%!
And even though we’re experiencing higher prices at the pump and in the grocery store, we need to keep in mind that a basket of groceries that cost nine hours of labor to buy in 1920 now only takes us 105 minutes.
Is Poverty Temporary or Permanent?
The answer to this question is Yes. It is both. There are some who will be poor perpetually. Our Lord also reminded us that we would have the poor in our midst (cf. Matt. 26:11). For these folks, poverty is permanent and the church should be at the forefront of providing true aid and not merely throwing money at them; the government does that. In fact, I’m fully convinced that a compassionate diaconate with sufficient funds and an effective set of church leaders (pastors and fellow-elders) can do more to truly alleviate perpetual poverty than the government can.
It is also an interesting stat, by the way, that
That being said, we must sadly acknowledge that some people, by their moral and social behaviors, place themselves in poverty-like situations through a series of bad choices. Some, like Stein, would go so far as to say “Living in poverty today is largely the result of specific unfortunate life choices people make.”
 Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, (NY: Basic Books, 2008), p. 131.
 Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, (NY: Basic Books, 2004), p. 301.
 Ben Stein & Phil DeMuth, Can America Survive? (Carlsbad, CA: New Beginnings Press, 2004), p. 7.
 Both Nicholas Eberstadt (Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies) & Daniel Slesnick (University of Texas) believe that there is little basis in solid economic theory for using income as a measure of welfare. Slesnick adds, “As a snapshot estimate of the standard of living, the consumption of goods and services is of paramount importance.”
 Stein, CAS? 7-8.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 10.