Acton Institute Powerblog

Pat Robertson, Poverty, and Possibilities

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Television evangelist Pat Robertson is certainly known for saying provocative things, and he’s done it again.

When Robertson’s co-host, Wendy Griffith, said not all families could afford to have multiple children, Robertson replied, ‘That’s the big problem, especially in Appalachia. They don’t know about birth control. They just keep having babies.’

‘You see a string of all these little ragamuffins, and not enough food to eat and so on,’ he said, and it’s desperate poverty.’

Let’s not discuss how horrible it is to refer to children living in poverty “ragamuffins.” Rather, let’s focus on something Robertson did get right here: the desperate poverty of the Appalachian region in the U.S. Fox News reports that in some areas of our country, 4 out of 5 people live in “near poverty”, and that jobs are nowhere to be found.

In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy ‘poor.

‘I think it’s going to get worse,’ said Irene Salyers, 52, of Buchanan County, Va., a declining coal region in Appalachia. Married and divorced three times, Salyers now helps run a fruit and vegetable stand with her boyfriend but it doesn’t generate much income. They live mostly off government disability checks.

‘If you do try to go apply for a job, they’re not hiring people, and they’re not paying that much to even go to work,’ she said.

There are a tangle of issues here. Many people living in poverty live in single-parent homes, which raises the poverty rate, as does lack of education. The type of jobs one could get right out of high school and expect to keep for a working lifetime while raising a family (think of mining or auto assembly line) don’t exist anymore. We are living in a time of “creative destruction”:

…the phenomenon whereby old skills, companies, and sometimes entire industries are eclipsed as new methods and businesses take their place. Creative destruction is seen in layoffs, downsizing, the obsolescence of firms, and, sometimes, serious injury to the communities that depend on them. It looks horrible, and, especially when seen through the lives of the people who experience such economic upheaval, it can be heartrending. But think of the alternative—What if the American Founders had constructed a society where no industry was ever allowed to go under because it would mean a lot of innocent people losing their jobs? I mean, have you ever met a livery yard owner or a stable boy? How about a blacksmith or a farrier? Do you have among your acquaintances any makers of bridles, saddles, chaises, coaches, or buggy whips?

It is heartrending, especially when children are involved. The answer, however, does not lie in standing still (making buggy whips instead of jets), nor does it lie in demanding that poor people cease having children. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals call for just this type of population control, and it doesn’t end poverty. Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg:

The real mystery, the real mystery of economic development, I would argue, is essentially Christianity. Why? Christianity contains a view of human beings as creators…

We also know that Christianity transforms people’s vision of themselves and of other people. So, this is very important; because when we come to think about things like economic development, we’re very tempted to think, ‘Well, maybe the UN has the answers,’ or ‘Maybe some obscure economist writing 60 years ago has the answers.’ Well, maybe there are some answers there. But we should not be reticent to go back and look into our tradition, this 2,000-year tradition of Christianity, which has the antecedent 2,000 years of Jewish reflection upon these issues.”

Within this 3,000-year tradition, we have marvelous insights into the dignity of the human person, of even institutions and ways of resolving problems of poverty. But above all, it gives us the ultimate reasons for why we should be concerned about these issues, because gospels tell us we need to love our neighbor as our self. We need to see Christ in the person of the poor.[emphasis added]

Calling the poor “ragamuffins” and demanding that they stop having children is not a Christ-like vision, and it does not begin to address the real issues of poverty. We need instead to see the possibility of each human, created in God’s image and likeness, and ask ourselves how we can partner with that person to begin to address the issues that lead to poverty and find creative solutions to alleviate it. We need to see beyond poverty to the possibilities, the solutions, the transformation of lives.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Curt Day

    I don’t know why people still pay attention to Pat Robertson. But there is a grain of truth in what he said and it isn’t in the label he used for people from Appalachia. We mush be conscious of the cost of having each child and whether we can pay it. And one of the factors that is affecting people’s ability to raise their children, at least in the West Virginia part of Appalachia, is the devastation that the Mountain Top Removal method of mining has on the region and the people there.

  • Gabriella

    @ Curt: what about missionary families that request increase in church support for every child that is born? I know some that have 3-5 kids. . .is that ok? They don’t really “pay” for their children, do they?

    • Curt Day

      Isn’t this a matter of those who are supporting and the families themselves?

      Note what I was referring to and how those with wealth are sometimes infringing on the ability of families to provide for the children they already have.

      • Gabriella

        uh, Curt, I quote you: “We mush (sic) be conscious of the cost of having each child and whether we can pay it.” So, are missionaries exempt from counting the cost and are they to just assume that the parishioners in their churches will hump it to work another day or two at their secular jobs to pay for their extra kids? I don’t remember hearing of any missionary wives getting a little side job to pay for diapers any time recently. . . but I DO KNOW several of them that have 3-5 children (above the average even in developed countries) to support. . .so. . .are they different than families in Appalachia who look to the government for their support? hmmmmm. . . .

  • Gabriella

    Why are churches in America sending stuff overseas when there is extreme poverty in their OWN BACKYARD? shame. . . Might want to read Matthew 25:31-46, my brothers and sisters in Christ. . .

  • Royston Lodge

    How much time has Pat Robertson actually spent in Appalachia?

  • Carla Back Moll

    Crazy old man. I am highly offended by his statement about Appalachian folks,their kids being “ragamuffins” & no1s ever heard of birth control. I was raised back in Letcher co., KY.The people bk there are the nicest people you’d want to meet.And no1 is stupid.He’s always asking for pledges on his show,& then he spends it all on some1 else’s poor in foreign countries, & keeps himself & his staff living in luxury.Y don’t they take care of American people first, their own people,if they are such good Christians? Hypocrites. That’s Y I haven’t watched his show since the early 90s.

  • Dann Youle

    My mom was born in Appalacia, but, they were by no means ignorant humans who just kept having children they couldn’t afford! Why do we always assume this is the case, and WHY is Pat Robertson even EVER on the air?! What’s wrong with the people who put the guy on the air still?!. . .Just makes him AND Christians look dumb, especially to those who think we’re all “Pat Robertson?!”

  • Pingback: Ragamuffins! | In Veritate Fortitudo()

  • Jim Henderson

    I worked for over 20 years at Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. My thoughts on the shamefulness of his comments:

  • Wind Blown Leaf

    I read Robertson’s comments, and I do not personally see what is wrong with the term ‘ragamuffins’ … it sounds to me like an endearing term similar to ‘rug rats’ or ‘Munchkins’. Something that also struck me on the story was the mother who had gone through several husbands, it would seem to me that the church is needed to provide discipline teaching them to fish rather than pity causing them to rely on others. Also I do not see how birth control as in not having children is unbiblical. Can someone shed some light on these things?

    • IgnoreTheFools

      You are correct about the term ragamuffins, there is nothing wrong with that. As far as birth control is concerned, I believe in a simple solution to the size of family, if you want children and can Afford to support them yourself, have them, if you expect me to help support them, you better get on birth control. Just common sense to me.

  • Linda Nietman

    While I generally do not agree with Pat Robertson, I believe he does have a point here. Whether it is in Appalachia or the inner cities, is it responsible action to keep bringing children into the world if you can’t afford to care for them? You don’t have to be “rich” to have children, but surely you should be able to feed them. I don’t believe that is an “unChristian” attitude. I most certainly believe that our first obligation as Christian is to care for “the least of these.”. But what is wrong with controlling having more children when you can’t feed the ones you have? Certainly large families are not the “cause” of poverty, but does it really make sense to make matters worse when there is a means of control? Surely we should be working on ways to provide jobs and any help needed to better the lives of those who need it. Not only in Appalachia but in many ares of the country and world. But for the sake of the children born into terrible conditions, I don’t feel that controlling family size is too much to ask.