Acton Institute Powerblog

Poverty, Charity, and The State

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Joe Carter wrote a good piece on poverty and Christian charity over at the First Things site with some good quotes from Abraham Kuyper.

Carter writes:

The problem of poverty, at least in America, is not just that it makes it difficult for people to fulfill their material needs, but rather that it blinds us all to what we really need. After all, what the truly destitute—those without food and shelter—need most isn’t a handout or a redistribution of wealth. What they need is for Christians to heed Jesus’ command. As Kuyper points out,

For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God’s grace to many of you—nevertheless, the 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.

We can see a similar reflection about the role of the state and love of neighbor in Pope Benedict XVI encyclical Deus Caritas Est where he writes in Paragraph 28

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.

But this of course means that we need to do something and actually get involved in helping the poor–and that is easier said than done. As Carter writes:

Some day I will stand before my Creator and he’ll ask why I didn’t feed my brother when he was hungry or clothe my sister when she was cold. Shall I tell him, “I couldn’t give, Lord, I lived in poverty”?

Unlike the poor widow, I’m rich in possessions and could give out of my wealth. But she gave out of abundance—an obedient heart and love for her neighbor—of which I remain truly impoverished.

Michael Matheson Miller


  • Roger McKinney

    “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.”

    I have never agreed with that quote from Kuyper. It assumes too much. It assumes that the socialists who have taken over government are the only judges of what constitutes care for the poor, and those socialists assume that we can eliminate poverty completely.

    Did Kuyper believe that we could eliminate poverty? If so, he was a pretty poor theologian. Poverty is the natural state of mankind. Getting out of poverty requires a great deal of effort and certain character traits.

    As for food and shelter, there are enough private charities in the US that no one needs to go hungry. If they do, it’s their own fault. Any church in the nation will provide food if asked. The same goes for shelter.

    I see very little need for state support of the poor. It seems to perpetuate poverty more than alleviate it.

  • Roger,

    I think you’d like his footnote even less:

    “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

    It’s clear here at least that the state is the last resort in terms of support for the poor, and certainly for Kuyper the least favored. But when all else fails…

  • Roger McKinney

    It’s hard to discuss what would happen without state aid to the poor because the state has been doing it for such a very long time. But that doesn’t mean that state aid is necessary, only that people assume it is.

    When do people starve to death? Before the advent of capitalism starvation happened because of crop failures, the old Malthusian cycles. Mass starvation happened frequently. What could the state have done to prevent those? Nothing. And the rich couldn’t do much more because there weren’t enough wealthy and they didn’t have enough wealth to save many.

    When did the Malthusian cycles begin to end? With the advent of capitalism which made people wealthy enough to buy food from geographic areas not affected by crop failures. State support of the poor had nothing to do with it at all.

    China is the modern example. 30 million starved to death in the 1960’s. 30 million starved to death in the USSR in the 1930’s. Why didn’t the state come to their aid?

    Does anyone starve to death in the West? If they do, it’s their own fault, but I have never seen an case of it.

    Did Kuyper really think that non-Christians are so callous today that they would not use their wealth to prevent a neighbor from starving to death? That’s a very low view of mankind. I have never met anyone that uncaring, let alone whole societies like that.

    The idea that the state is the last resort for the poor flies in the face of the historical evidence and what we know about people.

    But the main point should be that in a free society there will be very few people who are so poor they will need any kind of assistance at all because there will be plenty of good paying jobs. State intervention in the economy causes unemployment and a great deal of poverty. And state aid encourages poverty.

    Christians must move beyond the simple economics of the Bible. Capitalism did not exist. The rich held their excess wealth in gold and land. The gold was not invested in job-creating enterprise. Therefore charity was the only possible way to help the poor. Well, ending massive corruption would have helped a great deal.

    Today we know for a fact that the best way to help the poor is to create jobs through greater investment, and the only people with money to invest are the wealthy.

    In the Bible, there was no trade off between investing in job creation and charity. Charity meant nothing more than taking gold that set in a warehouse and giving it to the poor. Today, every dime of charity comes at the expense of investing in job creating businesses.

    I’m not saying that we should eliminate charity. Charity is necessary in many circumstances, but today it always comes at the expense of investment.

    And the whole idea that some government bureaucrat has more compassion for the poor than the neighbors of the poor is just disgusting and insulting.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, isn’t it odd to think that citizens would vote to increase their own taxes to help the poor, but those same citizens would not lift a finger to offer help privately?