Poverty Part I: The Modern Diagnosis

Who are the poor?  In Western society today, material goods are often emphasized with little regard to other essential components of a truly happy life.  For this reason, it is hardly surprising that poverty has been re-defined to mean those who have less, rather than those who have not.  Time was when poor people lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor and were doing good to eat two meals a day; now they can have indoor plumbing and a TV in their living room.  What criteria satisfy the modern definition of poverty?  Based on those criteria, what is the modern solution?  Does it work?

Why is it that some people have less?  What makes a poor person poor?  Obviously, the last thing we should do is blame the poor victim!  Surely poverty is purely a result of circumstances.  But if destitution and indigence are “inevitable consequences of the environment,” no change the poor person can make will be sufficient to change his status (Schlossberg 314).  If we can “deny any essential difference between a human being and a machine,” then there is nothing left for the human being but hopeless resignation until circumstances change (Machen 16).  The old ethic of work and perseverance as the keys to success disappears if circumstances are the real culprit.  Help must come from outside, and until then, stressing out is senseless.  If poverty is a comparative lack of material goods caused by circumstances over which the poor person has no control, then it is no surprise that the solution proposed is a purely material one (Corbett and Fikkert 60).  All the poor person really needs is more stuff – enough to put him on a level with those around him.  However, this solution actually exacerbates the problem.  Economically speaking, it makes sense that subsidizing poverty creates more of it.  If you pay a poor person because he is poor, who would want to be rich?  But the modern diagnosis of poverty doesn’t stop there.

If the victim isn’t to blame, then poverty, far from being a slur, can earn its possessor a hero status.  Modern thought tends to glorify poverty, seeing it as “a form of works righteousness whereby the poor have an automatic ticket into heaven” (Sproul 57).  The poor victims are good and the wealthy exploiters are evil (Clark 100).  This poor-vs.-rich classification lets people jump on a group bandwagon to virtue regardless of their personal morality.  If only circumstances are to blame, then it is the situation, not the person, that needs to be regenerated.  Thus the ultimate cure is to be found in politics – “the solutions are basically political – changing laws and public perceptions” (Sowell 29).  Never mind the “unpromising record of politics as a means of raising a group from poverty to affluence” (ibid 35)!  The solution is new social institutions – a new and perfect state.  Machen aptly terms this “a slavery, which is already stalking through the earth today, in the particular form of the materialistic paternalism of the modern state” (17).  Those who look to the state as savior must be ready to give up their own individuality in the interests of the whole.  In the end, a person who accepts the easy way out and won’t take responsibility is treated as a machine that couldn’t possibly have responsibility.  In the process, taxpayer dollars are appropriated to take care of these machines, and those who wish to be hard working and productive members of society are penalized.  Whose interest does that serve?

Another aspect of the modern definition of poverty is its emphasis on humanitarian action and altruistic sentiment.  Although these terms have been surrounded by a halo that many Christians and others accept as genuine, humanitarianism’s concept of altruistic love is a shallow counterfeit of true Biblical love.  Behind the nicely worded mask lies a militant envy against those who are better off – whether in terms of money, education, good looks, or any other perceived difference (Schlossberg 51-53).  Poverty is glorified and showered with altruistic donations (often in the form of taxpayer dollars), not from any compassion on the poor, but from hatred to the well-to-do citizen, who is made to feel guilty.  How often have we heard it remarked – perhaps even remarked ourselves – “How can we enjoy having so much, when there are children starving in Africa?”  But starving yourself – or even just skipping the next candy bar – won’t help the children in Africa.  (It still might be a good idea to skip the next candy bar for other reasons; but that’s beside the point.)  On the flip side, those in less affluent circumstances are encouraged to feel resentment.  The universe is treating them unfairly; they are victims of a crushing machine; slow, steady work is pointless; but when the iron is hot, then it is time to strike in dramatic retaliation and change the cosmic order in their favor.  Meanwhile the humanitarian (the bona fide humanitarian – many people, unaware of the term’s real meaning and origin, use or accept it indiscriminately) foments the discord, widens the gap, sinks the poor in helpless bemoaning, and drowns the affluent in sloughs of irrational guilt.  All that, in the name of altruistic, selfless, subtle humanitarianism.

This brings us to another delusion – if poverty is inequality, then all that is necessary for poverty to end is equality.  So equality rather than justice becomes the goal.  Originally, the term may have meant equal opportunity – it is certainly true that no person deserves a favored treatment at the hands of the law.  However, as Sowell points out, “Equal treatment does not mean equal results” (109).  In fact, it means the exact opposite.  Each person is unique, and it should not surprise us if, given equal opportunities, unique people end up in unique circumstances (Schlossberg 55).  Making equal results rather than equal opportunity the goal, egalitarianism is forced to override justice and give preference to those who are disadvantaged (Sowell 52).  Instead of treatment based on a person’s own work and abilities, people are treated based on the group to which they belong in the name of equality.  The truth is, “the only way we can have equality of economic welfare is to shut our eyes to the biblical principle of equity” (Sproul 59).  Although touted as justice, equality in this sense is its exact opposite.  A top-down, centralized attempt at eliminating inequality is the height of injustice, because it ignores the unique nature, ability, and desires of each individual.

America has not yet seen the full practical import of the modern concept of poverty – that the poor are poor only in material terms and that poverty is equivalent to inequality, but even in the abstract we can already see that people have been reduced to machines, hatred has been cloaked as love, and justice has been ditched for equality.  What went wrong?  Might there be another and better diagnosis?

(Part II)

Works Cited:

Clark, Gordon H.  A Christian View of Men and Things.  Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1980.  Fourth Edition, 2005.

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert.  When Helping Hurts.  Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009.

Machen, J. Gresham.  Ed. Stephen J. Nichols.  The Gospel in the Modern World.  Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Schlossberg, Herbert.  Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.  Crossway ed., 1993.

Sowell, Thomas.  Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?  New York, NY: Quill, 1984.

Sproul, R. C.  Ethics and the Christian.  Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983.  Third Printing, 1986.


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