(New York: American Bible Society, 2008 paperback edition)
Do Christians have a religious duty to support a government's redistribution of wealth? The promoters of The Poverty and Justice Bible, cited on the cover blurbs, all say so. The fact that there is poverty in America and throughout the world is, to them, evidence that government has not been given enough power, and enough money, to abolish it.
But before we can address their question, we must pose a question of our own.
What actually happens when the state assumes the role of wealth redistributor? Does government action, in fact, eliminate poverty?
"Free ‘Obama Money' Causes Near Riot in Detroit," was the Channel 7 News headline of October 9, 2009. The video of this incident is preserved on the Internet and readily available.
It's hard to dismiss the images of thousands of people mobbing Detroit's Cobo Center on a chilly morning, clamoring for what they believed would be "free money" doled out by the government. We see no one here inadequately clothed. Some are using cell phones. But all, supposedly, are "poor." After several decades of the federal government's "War on Poverty," how can there be so many people standing in line for alms instead of working?
The incident in Detroit happened in cold weather. But in the broiling summer of 2010, the same thing happened in Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 11, estimated 30,000 people mobbed the Tri-Cities Plaza Shopping Center "seeking applications for government-subsidized housing," leading to "a chaotic mob scene that left 62 people injured."
$1 Trillion a Year-Not Enough?
How can such things be? According to Edgar Browning, professor of economics at Texas A&M University, "Incredible as it seems, Americans transfer more than a trillion dollars each year to low-income families through a bewildering array of programs, all in the name of fighting poverty and inequality."
That's not $1 trillion that we should be spending, but $1 trillion that we're already spending-$1 trillion earned by Americans working at their jobs, collected through taxation by the government, and doled out by the government-minus the sizeable chunk withheld to pay for all these programs-to eliminate poverty.
And yet there is still poverty. Otherwise no one would have been at the Cobo Center.
Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and the rest of The P&J promoters say that this is because the trillion dollars a year we're already spending is not enough-if it were, no one would be poor. To which Professor Browning might reply:
"If a trillion dollars were simply given to those counted as poor by the federal government (37 million in 2005), it would amount to $27,000 per person. That's $81,000 for a family of three, higher than the median income of all American families, and far greater than the poverty threshold of $15,577."
There must be something wrong with these policies and programs, for that amount of money to be spent and so many of the recipients to remain poor. Meanwhile, with the government already demanding more than the median income of the American family, how much more can be asked for?
What's wrong is obvious. What with renting and equipping office space, or even constructing new offices, hiring staff, paying for the generous benefits enjoyed by government employees, writing, printing, and distributing policy guides, handbooks, and application forms, and all the other expenses incurred by a bureaucracy, there's not much of that trillion dollars left to give the poor.
But suppose-just suppose-the government could squeeze another trillion dollars a year from the taxpayers, just to increase the funding for antipoverty programs. Would that work?
Why Won't It Work?
The Cato Institute, a prestigious libertarian think tank, has available online a paper entitled, "Have Antipoverty Programs Increased Poverty?" The paper abounds with facts and figures, but the short answer to the question is "Yes-antipoverty programs have increased poverty."
"As the War on Poverty programs began in the latter half of the 1960s," reads the report, "there was a virtual explosion in government transfers" (p. 3), meaning transfers of wealth from some groups of citizens to others. Did that cause poverty rates to decline? The authors answer, "Incredible as it may seem, almost the opposite occurred. Just as government spending on the various antipoverty programs accelerated in the late 1960s, progress against poverty came to a grinding halt" (p. 4).
Why? "If the state of the economy fails to explain the lack of progress against poverty in the face of massive increases in government transfers, what does?
"While government transfer programs have improved the standard of living for some of the poor through increased benefit levels and relaxed eligibility requirements, they have also stifled the incentives for the poor to improve their own economic status an
d for the nonpoor to avoid poverty. They have introduced a perverse incentive structure, one that penalizes self-improvement and protects individuals against the consequences of their own bad choices." (p. 7)
How so? "Increases in the real value of benefit payments make dependency on the government even more attractive compared with the alternative of self-support. Just as unemployment compensation raises the unemployment rate by increasing the duration of unemployment, higher antipoverty benefits raise the poverty rate [emphasis added] by increasing the duration of poverty among the marginal poor." (p. 8)
In plain English, paying people not to work encourages them not to work. Paying single women to have babies out of wedlock encourages them to have babies out of wedlock-a well-known recipe for staying poor.
Did we really need a Cato economics study to tell us that?
An Experiment in Government Dependency
The tragedy of it all is that when the War on Poverty was launched in 1964, we should have known it wouldn't work. There was no excuse for not knowing: the information was already staring our leaders in the face.
Long before anyone in Washington thought of instituting massive antipoverty programs for millions of people, Congress set up Indian reservations and subjected Native Americans to a long-term experiment in government dependency. The disappointing, even disastrous, results of that experiment were well known long before 1964.
As a young man Chalcedon's founder, R. J. Rushdoony, spent eight and a half years (1944-1953) as a missionary on the Owyhee Indian Reservation (Paiute and Shoshone) in Nevada. His writings and lectures on this experience have been collected into a book, The American Indian (currently in the process of publication, and not yet available).
Rushdoony saw first-hand what reservation life did to the Indians. He was also able to learn from older people what life for the Indians was like before the reservation.
In 1945 Rushdoony had Christmas dinner with a young man who had served in the military and seen much of the country before returning to the reservation. Here is Rushdoony's recollection of their conversation.
"As the evening progressed, he became somewhat serious. As we looked out of the window and saw the kerosene lamps being lit in one cabin after another across the valley, he pointed to them and said, ‘Look at those people of mine. They're no good. They're like me, just no account. All they're fit for is a reservation where someone puts a fence around them and takes care of them. That's it. They're not fit for anything else.'"
What reservation life provided the Indian, Rushdoony learned, was "freedom from cause and effect." Outside of the reservation, bad or irresponsible behavior often results in the loss of one's job, losing the respect of others, and, often enough, poverty. But inside the reservation there are no such consequences: drunk or sober, industrious or slothful, careful or foolish, the Indian still receives from the government the bare necessities of life. "The effect on character is obvious," Rushdoony said.
Even more than fifty years ago, Rushdoony clearly saw what government dependency had done to reservation Indians.
"[T]oday," he wrote, "after more than a century of reservation life, the Indian Service justifies its existence by asserting that the Indian is unfit for the rigors of a free, competitive life [emphasis added] and more and more money is needed to care for him, and, in fact, to prevent his actual starvation in some cases. If this annual assertion of the Indian Service is true, then the real Century of Dishonor is not the hundred years of conquest, massacre, and robbery-for the Indian survived that with a bloody dignity and honor-but the Century of Welfare Economy on the Reservation which has turned a proud, independent people into incompetents who must be wards of the government ..."
Was Rushdoony describing conditions that no longer exist?
In 2006, William L. Anderson of the Ludwig von Mises Institute wrote:
"I drove past a number of Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, and I must say that the sight was not exactly uplifting. I could see hundreds of tumble-down shacks and old trailers located on hillsides, and none of them were inviting places to live. It was obvious then that I was seeing something akin to a Third World scene with hundreds-perhaps thousands-of people living in great poverty."
Anderson quoted Peter Carlson: "The country's 2.1 million Indians, about 400,000 of whom live on reservations, have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and disease of any ethnic group in America."
Even in the ultra-liberal Huffington Post, in 2010, we read:
"The Housing Assistance Council states that ‘Native Americans living on Native American Lands [reservations] experience some of the highest poverty rates and worst housing conditions in our nation.' Poverty is a persistent pattern for Native Americans, but it is especially so for those living on Native American Lands ... While the national poverty rate for individuals is 12.4 percent, approximately 32.2 percent of Native Americans on Native American Lands live in debilitating poverty."
Keep On Doing the Same Thing...
Left to the tender mercies of the government, life for Indians on the reservations devolved into perpetual poverty. "They soon forgot how to hunt," Rushdoony said, and turned to "the whiskey religion"-a euphemism for a life of drunken idleness. "Since my time," he said, "the reservation has become a center of suicide, casual suicide because life has become a casual matter." Decades later, conditions are hardly any better.
In the urban ghettoes of many of America's major cities we find virtual reservations, inhabited by African-Americans instead of Indians. How can it be, after decades of "transfer payments"-a euphemism for redistribution of wealth-by the government, that these urban reservations remain so stubbornly poverty-stricken? Food stamps, rent subsidies, child-care subsidies for the mothers of out-of-wedlock babies-after all the trillions of taxpayer dollars poured into the inner cities, are we not justified in asking whether any amount of government largesse will ever make a dent in urban poverty?
The Poverty and Justice Bible urges its readers to "give lavishly," to "volunteer," to "cut your need to consume," and to "Make a noise! Make a positive pain of yourself. Write letters and send emails. Write to your local, state, and national representatives. Call the White House! Take it beyond letters and make a campaign. Raise the issue through public demonstrations and brochures," and so on. (The P&J Study Guide, p. 52)
Yes-although we have nothing but failure to show for decades of work and trillions of dollars spent, The P&J Bible exhorts us to keep on doing the same thing. If a trillion dollars a year is not enough to hand out to "the poor," maybe two trillion, or three trillion, will do the trick. The P&J Bible promoters are all on record insisting that you pay higher taxes and the government keep on doing what it's been doing since before most of us were born-all to no appreciable effect.
There has been one effect, at least. You might have noticed it while viewing the "free money" video from Detroit. By R. J. Rushdoony's 1945 Christmas dinner companion noticed it 65 years sooner.
After saying his people were fit for nothing but a reservation, the young Indian man continued:
"I've been across the country two or three times now in the last few years, and I've learned something-the white man isn't much better. He has reservation fever now. He wants someone to put a fence around the whole North American continent and take care of him. He wants the government to give him a handout and look after him just like Uncle Sam looks after us. And he's going to get it. If some outfit doesn't come in and do it for him, some foreign country, and turn the whole of the United States into a reservation, he'll do it himself. You wait and see. Because he's got reservation fever."
Rushdoony added, "He was right, absolutely right."
We don't need to go to Zimbabwe, North Korea, or Cuba to collect evidence that the promoters of The P&J Bible are wrong. Here in America, government interference in the economy and statist redistribution of wealth have not only failed to abolish poverty, but have actually left the recipients of welfare more deeply mired in poverty than they were before a single dime was spent. To urge a continuation and intensification of these policies is neither sane nor honest.
In Part 3 of this series we shall see what Rushdoony and some other serious Christian thinks have said about the problem of poverty and what to do about it. Their remarks have been given no place in The P&J Study Guide; but they do have the advantage of being true.
All Rushdoony quotes are from the manuscript (page numbers not available), used by permission.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.