Concern for the poor implicates our view of humanity. In his excellent book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky argues that our modern welfare state is entwined with an incorrect view of human nature. We now see humankind as inherently good, and if we are inherently good, then poverty is simply an accident—it cannot be connected to any possible wrongdoing. This mentality has produced a system in which every needy person is treated the same by a faceless government bureaucracy. There is no room for reform or redemption—all poor people are simply "hard up on their luck." But as we can see from our ballooning welfare programs, our present approach is not eliminating poverty.
The needs of the poor vary on a case-by-case basis. Consequently, they need personal, detailed, customized assistance. They need help from someone who knows when to give them some much needed financial aid and when to tighten the purse strings. Some need a short-term loan, some need full financial support for a time, some need a job, and some need counseling or help recovering from an addiction. Many have spiritual needs that outweigh their financial needs. Churches, charities, and private individuals can provide this personalized care—government rarely does. If we abdicate our responsibility to care for the poor and rely solely on government to provide for the poor, we forgo the possibility of better, more personal care.
Government programs are also notoriously inefficient. While private charities exhibit a wide spectrum of efficiency, at least their effectiveness can be analyzed by possible donors. The best dollars are spent at the best aid organizations—not funneled through a complex tax bureaucracy.
On the other side of the coin, government welfare programs often provide disincentives for private giving. When government assumes the primary role of caring for the poor, the need for individual charity diminishes. Sure we can all still give, but the pressure and need for personal giving becomes greatly reduced. In failing to give, the potential giver misses out on an unrealized blessing (Acts 20:35).
Some might respond that private charities and churches can't possibly do enough. And let me be clear—I am not arguing that there is no room for any form of government aid. But let’s not kid ourselves: We will not eliminate poverty through government redistribution of the wealth. History and the Scriptures (Matthew 26:11) validate that the poor will always be with us.
Those who believe government more capable of shouldering the burden of poverty often ignore the unintended consequences of government welfare. All too often government poverty programs perpetuate poverty by encouraging the poor to remain poor through perverse incentives. And they give possible benefactors of the poor the easy excuse, "Well, they can always go to the government."
Welfare programs like food stamps are vast and growing. While government has a role to play, the safety net must not become a mattress for the lazy. Private charities and churches can fill much of the void with an approach that is more personal, more efficient, more local, and more redemptive.
Subsidizing indolence does not help the poor—helping them to improve their own financial position will produce lasting results.