August 8, 2011

August 8, 2011 | Commentary on Understanding Poverty

Poverty and Stewardship

"God is watching." A liberal Christian group sent that warning in an ad addressed to Congress and President Barack Obama during the recent debt fight.

“The Bible teaches that God is watching to see how the poor fare under the decisions of the politically powerful,” the ad by Sojourners said.

True enough. But that doesn’t necessarily mean God is looking for a Sojourners-approved “Circle of Protection” around federal anti-poverty spending.

This “Circle of Protection” would take those anti-poverty programs off the table in the ongoing debate about America’s budget crisis. Advocates haven’t mentioned the number of programs or amount of funding implied in their call to preserve this spending.

Here are some details they left out:

The federal government currently runs 70 means-tested programs providing aid to the poor, to the tune of about $700 billion per year. With the exception of one major program transformed in the 1996 welfare reform—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—most have done little to help recipients escape poverty. Some contribute to a cycle of intergenerational dependence on welfare.

Do these advocates for the poor really want to protect this failed status quo? After all, God is also watching our stewardship.

Those who appeal to the Bible in this debate have more than one moral mandate to heed. As a new network called Christians for a Sustainable Economy (www.case4America.org) points out, the whole counsel of Scripture “urges not only compassion and provision for the poor but also the perils of debt and the importance of wise stewardship.”

On the moral measure of good stewardship, we fall far short.

Each American born today inherits a debt of $200,000 because of runaway federal spending —and no house to go with it. It is immoral to pass on such levels of indebtedness to those who come after us. We can and must find ways to serve the needs of the poor while ensuring the security of future generations.

“The Good Samaritan didn’t use a government credit card,” argues an ad countering Sojourners from the Values & Capitalism project of the American Enterprise Institute. “The question is not whether to care for the poor, but how?”

Regrettably, contends Christians for a Sustainable Economy, the well-intentioned efforts of some liberals give “a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programs that are often ineffective—even counterproductive.”

In its own open letter to national leaders, CASE argues that, rather than protecting programs for the poor, we should “protect the poor themselves.”

Good stewardship extends to the facts as well. Those who debate issues related to poverty and the economy have a responsibility to deploy data that illuminate rather than obfuscate the whole complex picture of our national budget challenges.

It’s easy to cherry-pick a couple of points to support a particular perspective. It’s harder to master and teach others the basics of the federal budget, so that citizens can reason together about the common good.

That’s a service rendered, for example, by The Heritage Foundation’s Budget Chart Book and partnerships such as the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, which has held more than 40 public forums around the country in recent years. Experts from across the political spectrum, including those with Heritage, the Brookings Institution and other think tanks, explained the unsustainable deficit levels racked up by undisciplined spending on entitlement programs.

Good stewardship of the facts also means accurately diagnosing the nature and extent of poverty in the United States.

Significant deprivation does exist, but it’s far less frequent than some liberal activists would have us believe. This physical need is the kind that government programs can help alleviate, and we should target funding to do so effectively.

What is more typical of American poverty, however, is fatherlessness. More than half of poor households with children are headed by single mothers. Today, four of every 10 births are outside marriage. Among Hispanics, the rate is 53 percent, and among blacks, 72 percent.

No amount of taxpayers’ money can replace a father. But restoring the relational fabric of society is what churches are called to do. Christians seeking to fight poverty should aim not for more government intervention, but for all children to be raised in the security of a home with a married mother and father.

The best circle of protection against poverty is marriage.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Related Issues: Understanding Poverty

First moved on the McClatchy-Tribune news wire