Acton Institute Powerblog

Does Advocating Limited Government Mean Abandoning the Poor?

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help poor honor godDoes promoting limited government require abandoning a commitment to the poor? Ryan Messmore, whose answer is a firm “no”, argues that non-government institutions can provide personalized assistance to help individuals fix relational problems, overcome poverty and lead healthy lives:

Calls for limited government are often mistakenly equated with a disregard for people in need. This flawed line of reasoning assumes that poverty is primarily a material problem and that government bears the primary responsibility for solving it by increasing welfare and entitlement spending.

Yet at its root, poverty is usually more complex than a simple lack of material resources. In America, poverty is often the result of a relational problem, such as fatherlessness or community breakdown. Such relational breakdowns are addressed most effectively through various civil society institutions.

People have many needs that extend beyond simple material possessions—needs that cannot be met by any single institution. Families, churches, businesses, and other forms of association play crucial roles in sustaining liberty and meeting people’s needs. Public policy in general and welfare policy in particular should respect and protect these institutions of civil society.

Thus, limited government is an important piece of a framework that benefits people in need. When government is limited to the tasks it is best-equipped and authorized to perform, it allows more effective poverty-fighting institutions to thrive. Far from being incompatible with a concern for poverty, an appropriately limited government is crucial to maintaining a social order that enables people to escape poverty.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Bill Hickman

    There are a lot of unsubstantiated claims in the Heritage piece, but I’ll mention one:

    “Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute found that a 10 percent increase in a state’s welfare spending correlates with a 3 percent decrease in charitable giving by its citizens.”

    This point really undercuts his thesis, doesn’t it? This would result in a net benefit to the poor, unless the charitable giving was more than three times the size of the welfare spending. If we’re worried about actually providing for the poor, why would this crowding out concern us?

    Also, it’s wrong to assume that growth in welfare spending actually did crowd out the charitable giving. The two changes probably had the same cause – the 2001 recession. When unemployment rises, people give less to charity because they have less money, and states automatically spend more to meet increased need. To explain this phenomenon, you don’t need to concoct a theory about how welfare somehow discourages private givers.