The fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty has reignited a flurry of discussion over what to do about the poor in America and around the world. This coincides with some interesting recent statistics on an increasing gulf between what the poor and rich are earning each year. Unfortunately, these disparities are nearly always approached from the perspective of economic policy, seeking solutions through markets, taxes, or regulations. The debate usually boils down to some form of "markets will fix it" vs. "government will fix it." This simplistic conflict is the root of too many modern conversations on the economic state of our nation.
Ideas like those promoted by author Ayn Rand often feature prominently in these discussions. Rand proposed two primary types of people: the self-interested self-made man (or woman) focused on success as a form of self-actualization vs. the greedy parasite who envies the success of the self-made man and wants to steal his wealth. Dig deep enough, and these two basic characters are nearly always the source of the conflict in our modern "inequality" discussions among pundits and the talking heads of cable news. One side will argue that the government needs to intervene for the good of all while the other side retorts that you have to let the rich work unimpeded so that jobs can be created – the wealth will inevitably trickle down!
There is a significant third solution, however, that typically goes ignored: Christian charity. (Rand lumped charitable Christians in with all of the other parasites, but those passages aren't typically quoted by the average libertarian.) Throughout the Bible, Christians are reminded again and again to help the poor and needy. It is not presented to them as in their own personal financial self-interest. They are not guaranteed that their aid will maximize the happiness quotient of all people. And they are not allowed to offload their charitable duties to the government. No, the Bible is replete with exhaustive, explicit commands to each Christian to care for the poor and needy. And since 73% of Americans (over 220 million people) claim to be Christians, these imperatives have big cultural implications. In doesn't get much clearer than James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
It is particularly difficult and onerous to freely use your own time and money to help other people. It's much easier to believe that the market will solve most problems. No one really needs to worry about their neighbor – just let the rich man build a bigger business, which will provide more jobs, which will allow poor people to work their way out of poverty... you've heard the argument. Self-interest will solve everything! And that argument is valid, to a point – many great things are accomplished through basic self-interested market forces, but these successes do not eliminate the duty of Christian charity and the selflessness it requires.
Nor will it do to abdicate this responsibility to the government. This is the other easy out: Just pass your duty along to the government and it becomes some bureaucrat's problem. You can sit back, pay your taxes (which you have to do anyway), and whine that someone in the government needs to do a better job whenever you hear about the plight of the poor. You've done it! You've dodged selflessness and sidestepped a personal moral burden by turning it into a universal legal requirement.
Real personal charity is hard. As Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper explained:
[T]he holy art of "giving for Jesus' sake" ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior. The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God's work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn't given with food stamps. The care of a community isn't provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can't be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.
Imagine if all professing Christians actually practiced personal charity. Imagine if every Christian gave 10%+ to their churches, compared to the 2.3% Christians gave in 2011. An increase to 10% would create an additional $165 billion in funding. Such a sum would transform the ability of Churches to care for the needy. Church leaders would be scrambling to catch up. Of course, giving is not capped at 10%. Imagine Christians giving 10% to their churches and another 5% to a combination of private charities and community groups.
But the duty of Christian charity extends beyond giving money. In loving their neighbors, Christians are to give of their own time and resources to their neighbors and communities. Among the various social duties given to the Israelites was the command to that agricultural people to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor could come and take freely of the food. This is a far cry from the modern credo that the corporation's only moral duty is to maximize shareholder profit! Business owners were to care for the poor directly, at their own expense. This wasn't a nice public gesture to be extended in a particularly profitable year. This was the way business was always to be done – continually providing some help to the needy at the expense of your own bottom line.
Christian employers ought also to care for their employees. Love of neighbor certainly extends to those working within a business, and charity in the business sphere will at times require a business owner, manager, or CEO to forego some profits in an effort to ensure the well-being and sustenance of his or her employees.
To the culture's detriment, Christian charity is largely absent from the modern discussion on how to fix our economy. Our American ethos gives selfish people an easy way out. We are (or were) the land of opportunity, where self-possessing Lockeans could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make something out of themselves. In such a land, if you aren't making it, you just aren't trying hard enough. Or if you are, then there must be something wrong with "the system" and the government needs to step in. The modern individualist American knows far too little of the Christian duty to give.
The beauty of charity is that it's something you can do right now. You can give money. You can give time. You can encourage your friends, family, and business associates to do the same. You can challenge the businesses you buy from to give back. You can encourage your church to aim for more (and fund them accordingly). You can work with local community organizations. And all of these things will have a more significant and lasting effect on you and your neighbor than calling your congressman ever will. Christian charity will not eliminate poverty, but it will lead to a far more healthy and properly ordered society, where perhaps the poor aren't so poor, where wealth is gained and used with more humility, and where people are given a better chance to move between income classes.