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Poverty: Should The Government Be Responsible For Caring For The Poor?

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The government is responsible for protecting poor people and helping reduce poverty.

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Jim Wallis Christian leader for social change; President and Founder @Sojourners

Yes, it's the government's biblical role.

There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: how big, how small should it be? Some famously have said government should be shrunk so small that it "could be drowned in a bathtub."

But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether ours is fulfilling them or not. So let's look at what the Bible says.

The words of Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Today we might say "the common good" is to be the focus and goal of government.

So the purpose of government, according to Paul, is to protect and promote. Protect from the evil and promote the good, and we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disparage government per se -- to see government as the central problem in society -- is simply not a biblical position.

First, government is supposed to protect its people. That certainly means protecting its citizens' safety and security. Crime and violence will always be real in this world, and that's why we have the police, who are meant to keep our streets, neighborhoods and homes safe.

Governments also need to protect their people judicially, and make sure our legal and court systems are procedurally just and fair. The biblical prophets regularly rail against corrupt court decisions and systems, in which the wealthy and powerful manipulate the legal processes for their own benefit and put the poor into greater debt or distress. The prophet Amos speaks directly to the courts (and government) when he says, "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts" (Amos 5:15 NIV).

But along with protecting, what should governments promote? The prophets hold kings, rulers, judges and even employers accountable to the demands of justice and fairness, therefore promoting those values.

And the Scriptures say that governmental authority is to protect the poor in particular. The biblical prophets are consistent and adamant in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and frequently follow their statements by requiring the king (the government) to act justly. That prophetic expectation did not apply only to the kings of Israel but was also extended to the kings of neighboring lands and peoples.

Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well." Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for kings or political leaders: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor." There is a powerful vision here for promoting the common good -- a vision of "righteous" prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor and to "deliverance" for the most vulnerable and needy, and even a concern for the land.

Evangelical theologian Ron Sider says:

The biblical understanding of justice clearly includes both procedural and distributive aspects. That the procedures must be fair is clear in the several texts that demand unbiased courts (Exodus 23:2-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; 10:17-19). That distributive justice (i.e., fair outcomes) is also a central part of justice is evident not just from the hundreds of texts about God's concern for the poor ... but also in the meaning of the key Hebrew words for justice (mishpat and tsedaqah).

Time and again the prophets use mishpat and tsedaqah to refer to fair economic outcomes. Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah for the absence of justice, the prophet Isaiah condemns the way rich and powerful landowners have acquired all the land by pushing out small farmers (Isaiah 5:7-9). It is important to note that even though in this text the prophet does not say the powerful acted illegally, he nevertheless denounces the unfair outcome.

Notice that Sider says "fair outcomes" and not "equal outcomes." The political right's continuing accusation against all who would hold governments accountable for justice is that we are really aiming for equal outcomes from public policy. But that simply is not true.

Indeed, the historical attempts by many Marxist governments to create equal outcomes have dramatically shown the great dangers of how the concentration of power in a few government hands has led to totalitarian results. The theological reason for that is the presence and power of sin, and the inability of such fallible human creatures to create social utopias on earth.

Yet the biblical prophets do hold their rulers, courts and judges, and landowners and employers accountable to the values of fairness, justice and even mercy. The theological reasons for that are, in fact, the same: the reality of evil and sin in the concentration of power -- both political and economic -- and the need to hold that power accountable to justice, especially in the protection of the poor. So fair outcomes, and not equal ones, are the goal of governments.

Governments should provide a check on powerful people, institutions and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy and certainly the poor.

If government is rendered unable to "punish the evil" and "reward the good" when it comes to the behavior of huge corporations and banks, for example, exactly who else is going to do that? And coming to a better moral balance in achieving fiscal responsibility, while protecting the poor, should be a bipartisan effort.

The radically anti-government ideology of the current right wing Tea Party ideology is simply contrary to a more biblical view of government, the need for checks and balances, the sinfulness of too much concentrated power in either the government or the market, the responsibilities we have for our neighbor and the God-ordained purposes of government -- in addition to the churches -- in serving the common good and, in particular, to protect the poor.

Joseph Loconte, Ph.D. Associate Professor of History, King's College in New York City

It's complicated.

Twenty years ago, in the run-up to the 1996 welfare reform law, the United States was in the thick of an argument over how to confront the issue of poverty. Back then, just about everyone agreed that billions of dollars in federal welfare spending had trapped the poor in a culture of government dependency. Most observers also admitted that the American family was in deep trouble -- about 80 percent of inner-city children were being born to single women -- and that these two facts were powerfully connected. "In every large city in America," wrote social scientist Charles Murray, "the family as we have known it throughout Western history seems terminal."

These facts were well established. The debate then, and now, is what to do about it. Under the Obama administration, the poverty rate has been climbing steadily and is expected to hit its highest levels since the 1960s. The problem is that both liberals and conservatives are neglecting the lessons of the debate over poverty a generation ago.

Some conservatives talk as if the only thing required is for government to get out of the way: slash government assistance, they say, and private-sector charity will rise from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix, to take care of society's neediest. This attitude is a reminder that utopian fantasies are not confined to the political and religious left.

It is hard to overstate the psychic shift that 50 years of Great Society engineering has brought to all levels of social outreach -- right down to the church-run soup kitchen. The hard truth is that the worst assumptions of the welfare state have shaped and distorted social assistance of all kinds. The lack of personal responsibility, the denigration of entry-level jobs as the training ground for better employment, the isolation of individuals from their families, the indifference to marriage, the denial of any moral or spiritual dimension to the problem of poverty -- these and other habits of mind infect much of what passes for private-sector charity.

Moreover, too many "family-values" voters ignore how difficult it can be to help individuals whose lives have been ravaged by violent and dysfunctional families. Yes, a growing economy is crucial: a good-paying job is still the best anti-poverty program around. But it's not a panacea. As liberal columnist William Raspberry wrote over 20 years ago: "If I could offer a single prescription for the survival of America, and particularly black America, it would be: restore the family." Is the private sector -- its charities, philanthropies and houses of worship -- really up to the task?

The liberal mistake is to assume that Big Government must remain the dominant -- and domineering -- alternative. The liberal conceit is to believe that government action translates into "compassion" for the poor. By arguing this way, liberals fail to understand the nature and depth of human need.

Consider a homeless man named Walter, whom I met years ago on the streets of New York City. He was coming out of a needle-exchange program. These government-funded programs distribute clean needles to drug users, free of charge and no questions asked. The idea is to prevent addicts from sharing dirty syringes and contracting HIV. Walter had just received a supply of new needles, courtesy of the taxpayers of New York.

Walter admitted to me that he wasn't using the needles himself; he was selling them on the street for bags of heroin. (Lots of other addicts at needle-exchange programs do the same.) I asked him if he could picture his life without drugs. Could he imagine himself clean, employed, married, maybe a homeowner? I'll never forget his answer: "I'm way past that," he said. "The best thing I do is getting high ... Just put me on an island and don't mess with me."

This is liberal compassion on display -- a moral atrocity. This is what journalist Marvin Olasky, in a trenchant critique, called "the tragedy of American compassion." Like Walter, many of the poor don't even dare to hope for a measure of dignity or purpose in their lives. They have given up on themselves. And why shouldn't they? In the ways that matter most -- in matters of the heart and soul -- the liberal welfare state has given up on them.

No one understands this problem better than the faith-based organizations that quietly and heroically serve the poor in their neighborhoods every day. I'm not talking about the mealy mouthed ministries that duplicate the fatalism of the nanny state. I mean the churches and religious charities, braced by a belief in the fierce love of a holy God, who plunge into the messy lives of the poor. They ask questions -- hard questions -- and lots of them. These good Samaritans are tender-hearted, yet tough-minded.

A compassionate society will keep its most vulnerable from slipping into utter destitution and despair. It will mobilize public support to preserve a social safety net. But logic and experience tell us that the most important anti-poverty work cannot be left primarily to government. We must re-imagine a caregiving society that draws deeply on the resources of its faith communities: the qualities of grace and forgiveness which give hope to the impoverished soul.

"Put yourself in the place of every poor man," wrote evangelical leader John Wesley, "and deal with him as you would God deal with you." Here is the one thing the secular State, by definition, cannot do -- and the one thing that could make all the difference in the world.

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