Saturday, September 12, 2009

Does Jesus Like Welfare?

Jesus is quite clear about his concern for the poor in the Gospels. He even goes so far as to assert that what you do for the least of mankind is what you do for him. Proponents of the Social Gospel take Christ's concern for the poor and attack conservative Christians who reject social programs for the poor. This seems like a fair attack. But is it?

I would assert that it is not. First, there is a question to ask about the nature and role of government. Is government's role to force altruism on its citizens? I would say no. Christ clearly commands people to help the poor. What he does not command is for us to take the money of others and give it to the poor. If I came with a gun, and demanded that you give me all of the money in your wallet for a wonderful charity such as the Salvation Army or Convoy of Hope, would I be in the wrong? Absolutely. Why is it any different to send an IRS agent to your house on behalf of the poor? Further, does government have the right to force a non-Christian to conform to the morality of a Christian? Does an atheist need to feel any compulsion to give to the poor? Should we force him to? No. He is wrong not to give, but he has the right to dispense his property as he sees fit.

Second, I would assert that welfare is actually harmful to the poor. A basic principle of economics is that anytime you make the cost of an action more beneficial (0r less harmful) to the individual, more people will choose to take that action. So, when government pressures lending houses to make low interest loans to poor people to buy a house they cannot afford at any interest rate, and offers massive tax deductions for homeownership, it is understandable that many poor people decide to buy homes. Or when a store puts an item on sale, they sell more of those items. The same principle applies to welfare. Subsidizing the act of not working makes it more likely that people will engage in that action. This is not to say that everyone who is on welfare is a lazy bum. But some of them are. And all of them are enjoying the fruits of another man's labor. Government should not encourage unemployment, whether voluntary or involuntary.

I think that the two biggest causes of poverty are absentee fatherhood and working few hours. This Heritage Foundation shows data which supports this conclusion:
People are poor for any number of reasons. But many poor people just happen to share the two conditions of a single parent home, where the parent works low hours. Why enact a system which encourages people to work lower hours by subsidizing idleness?


  1. Some years back I was seriously injured at work. An injury that required reconstructive surgery and ultimately cost me my job after 10 years. Mind you, I worked 56 hours a week leading up to this life changing event and thought welfare was for poor slobs that drove nicer cars than me and smoked 5 packs of cigarette daily. After being told that I could not go back to work and that my injury would be something that I would be burdened with for life, I had few alternatives. It was very humbling walking into social services, clad with a cast from my hip down to my toes amid, what I thought to be, nothing less than dirt bags. Sitting there, waiting for my turn and looking around I thought, if only for a few seconds, this is to be my fate. I was interviewed, and alas, I qualified. Maybe I was different, maybe welfare should have been invented for poor slobs in my situation only. People who suffered life-altering events and could not feed their families. Maybe? But, I did not sit ldly by; After 13 months had passed and my doctor finally gave me the all clear (after wearing a cast for 7 months and rehab for 6 months) I got a job working for a school and went back to school. But, whether right or wrong, I need to tell you, social services helped my family immensely in the interim.

  2. The purpose of this article is not to disparage all welfare recipients, or to say that welfare has never helped anyone. I am only saying that it is bad public policy to take from some and give to others. As long as a welfare system exists, those who do find themselves in trouble should utilize it, after exhausting help from their friends, family, and most importantly, their church. But it is my belief that the existence of a welfare system stifles the generosity of people who would otherwise be willing to give to charitable causes. After all, Uncle Sam is taking care of that. And, a person with the means to give generously to others has already been forced to give at the point of an audit, so why give again?

  3. Mr. Murphy,

    Your situation earlier is tough one indeed. People with physical disabilities who can not work are one of the things that I struggle with when trying to decide where I fall on the issue of welfare. In addressing this issue I want to expound on a subject that Jon discussed earlier.

    Biblically it is quite clear that we are called to serve and help the poor, hurting, people who have come on hard times, etc. We see this quite clearly in Matthew 25:45 and James 1:27. There are other instances as well throughout the New Testament.
    The church is the called to help out these people. James talks about the religion that God adores is the helping of widows and orphans in their time of need. This is clearly very important to Christ. I think as the next generation moves up we are seeing a stronger call to social action in the church and to helping people in their time of trouble. Think how much more people could devote their money to ventures that go toward helping those in need if they were not paying the taxes that we presently have in America. As Christians yes we should give to "Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's", but I feel Caesar is getting more than his fair share, and being inherently flawed people since God is not going to put us in jail for not giving him what is his, many christians pay the government what they ask and don't pay God what he asks.

    Before WWII and New deal programs, (only 70 years ago roughly) When people were in times of trouble they turned to their families and to the church for help. They looked to their neighbors and friends. They believed that asking the government for help was non sensical.

    I personally believe it is the responsibility of the church to help out those in need. It is not Uncle Sam's. In my mind, in an ideal world, this is what would happen. This is not the way it's happening now at all. And it is our own faults for not demanding change. And for the church dropping the ball on this issue big time years ago...

    - Ben Westra

    P.S. I hope this did not sound insensitive or liek I was making light of your situation. I am glad you received the help you needed. i just wish it was being provided by a different social arena.

  4. The key phrase here is "in an ideal world". As a Christian myself, I agree with you. I agree with the idea that one's church should be one's saving grace. But what if your church isn't willing? What if you are told that to help you would be like putting a Band-Aid on gushing wound? What then? Do you let your family starve? Do you leave and hold out your humbled hand to every church until one puts groceries in it? You are very sensible when you write "the church dropping the ball on this issue." Sometimes I feel that I am too idealistic in terms of what God commands. That is to say, I want a world and the people in it to adhere, to the letter, to what God demands of us. Not a world and people that interpret His words in a way that makes their ideals seem accurate.
    When I felt alone, I did what was left to do; I asked for help to be "provided by a different social arena" . . . and it was. And for the record, God, alone, provided. Please don't anyone question the way He provided.

  5. I think everyone can agree that we do not live in an ideal world. The Christian doctrine of the Fall handles that one for us. Christ informed us that the poor would always be with us. By this, I think that he meant to say that some people will always take advantage of the poor, some people will always choose to be poor, and some people will always find themselves in poverty due to unavoidable circumstances such as personal injury. As such, I find any sort of utopian vision of rescuing the poor from poverty to be extremely unrealistic.

    I think that as Christians there are a few critical questions to ask whenever we have to decide what a good public policy is. First, we have to ask ourselves what the end of a particular policy is. The end in the case of welfare is the reduction of poverty. Then, we must ask ourselves what the means are to accomplish the ends. In the case of welfare, the means to the end of reducing poverty is the taking of property through taxation, and giving some of this property to the poor. One must also ask if the means used to establish the ends in question are moral, and whether or not they succeed in accomplishing the ends.

    My answer to the question dealing with the morality of the means of welfare is that using the state to take from people to give to others is immoral. Voluntary contribution is the only moral contribution. Further, I find it impossible to believe that cash subsidies for poverty decrease poverty among the class of people who choose to be impoverished by choosing behaviors that make them impoverished, such as out of wedlock childbearing and unemployment. I am certain that welfare payments do an excellent job of alleviating the symptoms of poverty, but they do nothing to decrease poverty. In fact, I believe that they increase poverty.

    I think that this is not a matter of divine revelation. Any time scripture does not deal with something directly, it should be a matter on which thoughtful Christians should be in prayer and thoughtful consideration. After all, we should take very seriously our responsibility to the poor. We need a robust debate in order to determine the best way in which to carry out our mission to the poor. I simply believe that state poverty subsidies are an immoral means to accomplish an end on which everyone can agree. There is no doubt that God works through welfare to provide for his people. Whether or not good comes out of a thing does not necessarily mean that Christians must support it. I believe that God is sovereign over his creation and that God uses bad things for good, such as in the story of Joseph. Imagine if, after reading the story of Joseph, I advocated tossing my brother in a pit, selling my brother into slavery, and lying to my father. Every thoughtful Christian would be appalled. And yet didn't God use that evil to save the lives of countless people?

    My essential point is that we need to be extremely thoughtful in how we consider policies, not merely be supportive of any policy that claims to further an end which Christians support. Considering the ethics of means not directly discussed in scripture is greatly important, and we should all think about these issues very carefully, and discuss them charitably with one another.

  6. I agree with your essential point.