“We need transformation, relief, and opportunity…in that order,” says AEI’s Arthur Brooks in a new video on conservatism and poverty alleviation. “Transformation starts with culture. Transformation is faith, family, community, and work…That’s the beginning of getting people into the process of rising.”
Does God side with the poor and oppose the rich? Glenn Sunshine looks at what the Bible says about the issue:
So why are the poor described as blessed? The issue isn’t poverty per se, but rather the attitude of humility and reliance on God that it can produce in us, which is why Matthew’s version of the beatitude isn’t just “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Reliance on personal wealth or government help (Ps. 146, esp. vs. 3-4, 7-10) for security is foolish, because they do not last. Rather, we need to place our hope in God alone.
What about the rich? Although Scripture has some very harsh things to say about the wealthy, this does not mean that all of them are evil or under divine judgment. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were rich and yet were also approved by God. Just as poverty doesn’t guarantee virtue, wealth does not guarantee vice.
Scripture also tells us that God gives us the power to make wealth, and that he delights in the prosperity of his servants (Ps. 35:27)—which includes material prosperity (Deut. 28:11-13). So it is clear that wealth is not necessarily evil.
Why, then, the condemnations of the rich in Scripture?
Pope Benedict XVI delivered inspiring remarks at the European Year of Volunteering (EYV) summit held in Rome this past Nov. 10-11. He explained why gratuitous giving of personal talent and resources is so important in restoring a healthy vocational perspective to everyday business.
As Benedict knows all too well, a culture of Christian charitable giving is not at its height in Ol’ Europe, where the modern Welfare State and Keynesian economics have played such a dominant role the past 70 years (see why in Michael Miller’s 2008 Acton lecture The Victory of Socialism and the strong opinion of other Roman pontiffs in my blog Popes Say No to Socialism). European government dominance of charitable enterprise has reduced much of the Continent’s generosity in terms of private giving and volunteer activities.
A pervasive “every man for himself” mentality is now infecting the hearts of European workers and households struggling to stay afloat. From their perspective, who can really blame them? Many wonder: Who has the money or the time to care for others when you and your family are just barely surviving?
During the EYV summit, the Holy Father commended leaders from European charitable non-profits and volunteer organizations for keeping a culture of generosity and self-giving alive. Benedict underscored the absolutely essential role their work plays in building up a society of free giving and virtue (altruism, generosity and selflessness) and restoring confidence in man’s innately good heart, now withered and tested by the intense pressures of today’s down market. These latter socially destructive tendencies are the ones the Acton Insitute attempts to thwart in its program for effective charity, The Samaritan Award and Guide.
European charitable enterprise leaders, so to speak, help create a “market of gratuitousness”, as mentioned in Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). This same abundance philosophy is argued so convincingly in Arthur C. Brooks’s Gross National Happiness (see book with Brooks’s research on wealth and charitable giving). The president of the American Enterprise Institute writes that charitable giving of time and resources makes us psychologically happier and more humanly fulfilled, which in turn increases our chances of being more happy and productive in the workplace, which consequently influence growth trends in corporations and entire commercial sectors.
This is the positive circle of growth and happiness that charity helps inspire. It is the exact reason why volunteer activity ends up paying real dividends in commercial enterprise, as business people flourish morally and spiritually. To understand further, watch Arthur Brooks’s Fox News interview regarding economic growth factors linked to generosity and happiness in the United States and with some heavy criticism of giant Welfare States like France, a country ranked a miserable 91 out of 153 nations surveyed for the latest Index (download 2010 PDF report and index). According to the Index, some of the most enterprising European countries (like Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Holland), while battling the same destructive welfare culture and economic crises, all made the top 20 with the traditionally high-ranking United States (no. 5). By contrast, the same welfare dependent, economically troubled but far less enterprising Greece was ranked dead last in the Eurozone and in the bottom five of all 153 countries represented.
The opposite destructive vicious circle goes something like this: stinginess of heart leads to a lack of deep vocational interest in work and therefore a miserly contribution of one’s talent and resources, which directly lowers overall production and profits for enterprise, as worker pessimism and selfishness help undermine commercial potential. This is one good reason why markets stagnate, retract and eventually die when such negativity and selfishness swirl violently into a cultural vortex, sucking down an entire nation’s true economic potential.
We are not surprised to hear Pope telling EYV participants that volunteer work and charity “is not merely an expression of good will.” As he articulated this great teaching:
At the present time, marked as it is by crisis and uncertainty, your commitment is a reason for confidence, since it shows that goodness exists and that it is growing in our midst. The faith of all Catholics is surely strengthened when they see the good that is being done in the name of Christ… His grace perfects, strengthens and elevates that vocation and enables us to serve others without reward, satisfaction or any recompense. Here we see something of the grandeur of our human calling: to serve others with the same freedom and generosity which characterizes God himself.
A day later, during his Nov. 13 Sunday Angelus, the Pope reflected on giving and investment of human talent and resources in the context of Sunday’s gospel (Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30). As Acton’s President Rev. Robert Sirico argues in his monograph The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Benedict XVI invited faithful to respond thankfully and generously to their individual gifts for the advancement of God’s abundance on Earth:
In today’s Gospel…Jesus invites us to reflect with gratitude on the gifts we have received and to use them wisely for the growth of God’s Kingdom. May his words summon us to an ever deeper conversion of mind and heart, and a more effective solidarity n the service of all our brothers and sisters.
Finally, the Holy Father’s press secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ explained what Benedict XVI meant in a interview released after the Pope’s EYV remarks:
We are in the midst of an economic crisis afflicting the whole of Europe, and raising tensions, worries and anxieties throughout the world. It is a crisis that challenges the intellects and abilities of politicians and economists. In the midst of this crisis, the Pope’s speech to the young people gathered in Rome for the European Year of [Volunteering] may provide a modest contribution to help rediscover a common hope. The Pope asks us to keep in mind the idea of ‘gratuitousness’, of giving freely —that is, not living solely for one’s own interests, but living in such a way that we are a gift to others.
“In short, man does not live on bread alone, but also on the relationships between men and women who are truly free, who respect one another and take care of one another and love one another, beyond selfish calculations. It is from these relationships that mutual trust is rebuilt between people and populations. It is the fulcrum that is needed to lift the world anew.
The generous and routine volunteering of one’s talent and resources instills everyday habits that market-based economies need and rely on for individual entrepreneurs and businesses to grow and succeed. It’s what makes or breaks businesses teetering on the edge of failure, when employees and professional collaborators give a little more of themselves to help enterprise lunge forward.
Apart from emboldening private initiatives to diminish the role of European Welfare States and increasing our Gross National Happiness, the real output of charity is measured in the increased hearts and souls of generous, selfless business people. It is these same business people who take the gratuitousness they learned in habitual acts of charity and apply this virtue to generous forms of service with “other-directed” collaboration, products and services.
The recent budget battle may have sparked new questions for Americans to answer, such as what is poverty and who falls under such a classification? Furthermore, due to its massive debt, government may need a limited role in helping the poor. While Christians who stood behind the Circle of Protection advocated for the protection of programs they claim that benefit the poor, other Christians looked at the debate differently arguing for another way to help the poor. However, despite how we decide to help the poor, is our understanding of what it means to be poor misleading?
In the Washington Examiner, Thomas Sowell answers this question with a resounding yes as he explains how the definition of poverty has been politicized and changed:
Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means, especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.
This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. “The poor” are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever-bigger spending for ever-bigger government advance toward their goal.
If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty — people who are “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s phrase — there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.
Sowell goes further in-depth in his column supporting his arguments with a study from the Heritage Foundation which shows what it means to be “poor” in America.
Using the same study from the Heritage Foundation, Anthony Bradley argues in World Magazine that we need wealth creation to help the poor. Bradley explains how being poor in a wealthy nation is drastically different from being poor in a developing one:
“As the rich get richer, the poor get richer”
That may sound like a ridiculous overstatement but it’s true in the sense that nations that create wealth redefine what it means to be poor. Being poor in a wealthy nation is radically different than being poor in a developing one. The above statement also challenges the zero-sum myth: “As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” which has so tainted the understanding of economic imaginations of those in the West.
In fact, to be more specific, 99.6 percent of individuals the federal government defines as “poor” have refrigerators, 97.7 percent have televisions, 78.3 percent live in homes with air-conditioning, and 62 percent live in homes with washing machines. These percentages are only possible in a nation as wealthy as the United States; it certainly is not the case in Sudan.
Political liberals and progressive Christians are vulnerable to accepting zero-sum ideology without taking the time to test those theories against real data and facts. The argument here is not that American poverty is “OK”; the point is to highlight the fact that making public policy decisions about “helping the poor” and “ending poverty” in America needs to take into account how “the poor” actually live in reality. Otherwise we will continue to miss the mark and not help the truly disadvantaged. Our public policy needs to be directed toward people who are truly suffering and stuck in cycles of poverty so that we create the conditions that allow for the possibility of sustainable economic mobility.
Bradley raises a valid point, and based on what it means to be “poor” in America is there an injustice and disservice being committed to the poor in developing countries?
Both authors demonstrate the battle is over how we definite what it means to be poor. Unfortunately though, we are now faced with asking ourselves how politics have affected our definition of poverty, and, with the politicization of poverty, have we forgotten what it really means to be disadvantaged? In terms of what poverty means, the questions we face are not easy to answer, they’ll need a prudential approach rooted in Christian values.
Does the Circle of Protection actually help the poor? What may be surprising to many of those who are advocating for the protection of just about any welfare program is that these may not alleviate poverty but only redistribute wealth. Rev. Sirico explained in an interview with the National Catholic Register how the discussion should be about wealth creation, not wealth redistribution:
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank based in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggested the Christian activists may not be aware “of the root causes of poverty and wealth.”
“Their statements are all about redistribution of wealth with almost nothing about wealth creation through production and labor,” he said.
Rev. Sirico later articulates that the issue isn’t simply about whether we should care for the poor and vulnerable, but more to point how we should care for the poor and vulnerable. What may surprise the Circle of Protection activists is the programs they seek to protect trap the poor in poverty instead of lifting them out:
“Any Christian would agree that we should put the poor and vulnerable first. The question is how,” noted Father Sirico.
He argued that taxes on the middle class destroyed its ability to grow the economy and to generate surpluses that can be used to assist the poor or to create new jobs.
“Redistributing wealth is the way to keep the poor in poverty. The way to lift them out of poverty is with jobs,” said Father Sirico, who added that he did not mean government jobs, but rather jobs generated through wealth creation in the private sector.
Click here to read the entire article.
Both the religious right and left have weighed in during the heated federal budget battle as Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget has seen its fair share of support and criticism from many religious leaders.
In a recent article appearing in Our Sunday Visitor Congressman Ryan explains how he used Catholic social doctrine to help draft his proposed budget opening up with his views on it should be utilized by politicians:
Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.
Policymakers apply timeless principles to policies that are necessarily limited by changing circumstances. The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.
Throughout the article Congressman Ryan defends his proposed budget by articulating how the poor and vulnerable will benefit, how it preserves human dignity, that it creates budgetary discipline (which according to the Congressman is a moral imperative), and abides by the principle of subsidiarity.
Furthermore, Congressman Ryan argues the U.S. government cannot keep the principles promoted by Catholic social doctrine if the country defaults stating: “Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing. Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring ‘civilization of love.’”
Here at the Acton Institute we also understand the importance of passing a federal budget that is morally sound. We wrote our Principles for Budget Reform where readers can find articles, videos, and blog posts in support of four vital principles.
To read the full article click here.
Click here to read the Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.
The budget proposed by House Republicans has lead to a heated debate; one key facet being whether funding should be cut for programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable. Critics claim the House Republicans’ proposed budget violates Catholic social teaching (click here to read the critics’ open letter to Speaker Boehner). Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s first response to Boehner’s critics appeared in NRO. In this week’s commentary Rev. Sirico expands upon his first response and articulates how Catholics can disagree on how to assist the poor and vulnerable. The article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine.
Not Whether to Help the Poor, But How
By Rev. Sirico
The debate over the application of the core teachings of the Christian faith began when Jesus was presented with a Roman coin containing Caesar’s image. In that moment, the Lord drew both a limitation to the legitimate power of the state and a distinction between it and the supreme authority of Almighty God. What would unfold over the years following was a highly balanced and well thought-out hierarchy of values rooted in a core understanding of the dignity of the human person. Yet it was not so abstract a set of principles as to be incapable of providing guidance for concrete policy recommendations that nonetheless do not collapse dogmatic and unchangeable doctrine into the dynamic stuff of politics and policies.
Along this circuitous route to a more balanced set of principles, there have been dead ends and extremes from which the Church has pulled her faithful: the medieval Spiritualist Franciscan (i fraticelli) who wanted to ban private property as intrinsically evil, or, more recently, the Liberation Theologians who attempted to “collapse the eschaton” of the Kingdom of God into socialist revolution.
Yet the incarnation of Christ does not let the Christian off the hook when it comes to our beliefs about human dignity and the practical protection of the vulnerable. Understanding how to translate the social implications of the gospel into workable and concrete solutions is at times as frustrating and ambiguous as understanding the homoousian clause of the Creed.
Let us take the recent occasions of public discourse by Catholics on these matters occasioned by an open letter issued by a group of Catholic professors, which argues that the budget proposed by House Republicans violates Catholic social teaching, and in which they come close to calling the Speaker of the House a heretic.
There is evidence in this letter, and in some of the commentary surrounding it, of a failure to grasp the necessary distinctions in Catholic moral theology (of which, as the popes have noted, the social teaching is a branch). I pointed out in my original critique of the open letter that the Catholic professors’ statement neglected the important distinction between “non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines” and the “prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching.” Then I cited the Compendium of the Social Doctrine: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions” (571). The use of the phrase “contingent questions” in the Compendium is quite deliberate. It means that it is simply inaccurate to say that Catholics who debate how to address poverty dissent from the Church’s teaching in the same way as someone who does not support the Church’s insistence on legal protection for the unborn.
Some Catholic commentators reject this point, offering in defense a quotation from Caritas in Veritate: “Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…. There is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”
Benedict’s point here is that the Church’s teaching in the moral realm is one consistent body of thought. It is not a hodgepodge of policy concerns, among which Catholics may pick and choose along the lines of the fashionable Cafeteria Catholicism. The Church’s solicitude for the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, and the elderly is all of a piece. In that sense, the critique is correct: A Catholic cannot subordinate “justice issues” to “life issues”; he must embrace the Church’s teaching as a whole, because life issues are justice issues.
Yet the distinction holds. This is not because “justice issues” are less important than “life issues,” but because they are fundamentally different — a difference rooted in two millennia of Catholic moral reflection. Abortion involves the direct and intentional destruction of an innocent human life. It is never permissible intentionally to choose evil. Laws that permit abortion are inherently unjust, and Catholics are obligated to work toward legal prohibition of abortion.
When it comes to doing good, however, which is what addressing poverty entails, the Church does not stipulate exactly how such good is to be done. Helping the poor requires a different sort of moral analysis — not because I (or the Church’s teaching) am “dualist,” as some critics suggest, nor because assisting the poor is “less important” than protecting the unborn, but because the two issues possess different characteristics and therefore require different sorts of moral analysis.
This distinction holds, for example, outside the realm of the Church’s social teaching and can be seen in her teaching on the moral manner in which life is conceived. A superficial criticism of the Church’s stance against artificial contraception says, “Why is it wrong to avoid conception by the use of chemicals or condoms, but not immoral when using natural family planning methods?” The error in this argument is the same one made by the critics to whom I am responding: In the former case, an evil means is being chosen (the action to chemically prevent conception, for example), rather than refraining from doing good at a given time (actions leading to conception). It is not a sin to refrain from choosing from all the many goods available; it is always a sin to intentionally choose to do evil.
It is possible to argue that cutting welfare programs is consistent with Catholic social teaching, because we may choose from the various options available to us to do good by evaluating them in the hierarchy of goods. It will not do to fling citations of social encyclicals at each other on this point. Certainly there are passages that could be found to support increased government activity in the economy and provision of social services — when necessary to serve the common good. But there are also passages that suggest decreased government activity and withdrawal from social services (i.e., critiques of bureaucracy and calls for more vigorous private charity). Whether a particular situation — in this case, the budget battle in the United States in the year 2011 — calls for one or the other is manifestly a prudential question about which Catholics may disagree.
At the root of the incredulity and exasperation of some Catholics who mix fair arguments with vitriol is an incapacity to recognize that we really believe that many government programs aggravate rather than ameliorate poverty and other social ills. Rather than debating the prudence of the policies at hand, detractors resort to ad hominem attacks and pronounce anathemas selectively. Yet there is by this time a vast literature on the damage wrought by the war on poverty and its failure to achieve its goals. Such critics can continue to believe that shoveling government money into welfare programs discharges Catholic social teaching’s obligation to assist the poor if they wish, but their inability to see other views as reasonable, at least, is distressingly myopic.
A Catholic may not disregard the Church’s teaching to assist the poor and vulnerable; to do so would be to neglect the words and example of Christ Himself. It would be, in effect, to deny the Faith. But on the question of how best to fulfill that obligation, Catholics will indeed disagree, and the Church does not teach that it must be otherwise. The same kind of latitude is not permitted when it comes to legal protection of the unborn. I do not believe that this is “my view” of the matter; it is the mind of the Church, to which I hope my own mind is conformed.
Gas prices are beginning to come down, but for many people prices are not falling fast enough.
The pain caused by high gas prices is spread widely, but it is felt intensely on the working poor and the unemployed who are trying to find a job.
A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlights Alicia Madison, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who is unemployed. Madison is looking for a job, but because of high gas prices she, at times, cannot even afford to go to an interview:
Before a recent job interview, Alicia Madison climbed into her 2001 Ford Explorer and realized her gas tank was empty, just like her bank account.
Unable to afford gas for the 25-mile round trip from her Glen Ellyn home to the Naperville business, Madison was forced to reschedule. She now relies on gas vouchers issued by a nonprofit agency to drive to interviews.
Madison, a certified nursing assistant unemployed three months, is desperate to return to work, but not desperate enough to take a job too far from home with gas prices at record highs.
“I have to be conscious of where I’m looking and how far it’s going to be,” said Madison, 23, a single mother on food stamps. “I don’t want to work just to pay for gas.”
Her dilemma underscores the problem that steep gas prices have created for the unemployed: They need income to fill their tank but can’t afford to take jobs with long commutes.
Some job seekers say they are more selective now, curtailing face-to-face networking and ignoring some opportunities based on the high transportation costs.
As the article also points out, job seekers have to decide if the pay for a potential job is enough for them to make the daily commute. Is it worth working eight or nine hours a day when a good chunk of the earnings goes toward paying for the gas needed to get to work?
The hardships for low income workers are further explained by Greg McBride, Senior Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com. According to McBride, 72 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 are cutting their discretionary spending. While cutting discretionary spending is what is needed to be a good financial steward when money is tight, McBride explains that higher gas prices hurt economic growth because they cause a decrease in consumer spending.
As Ray Nothstine argues in “High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor”, we should do everything we can to lighten the burden on the poor and lower gas prices. This will aid everyone, but especially those who are the most adversely affected by the high gas prices. One way to lower gas prices is to look no further than the free market, which is articulated again by Nothstine:
While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”
Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”
This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.
Tomorrow evening economist Victor Claar will be leading an Acton on Tap where he will talk about fair trade. As a Christian and an economist, Claar brings a unique perspective to the discussion. He will be asking a number of key questions including: Is fair trade truly the best way to help the poor, and, if not, then what can we do instead?
The blog, Common Sense Concept, recently reviewed Claar’s new book, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. This rerview provides a sneak peak of the discussion ahead at this week’s Acton on Tap:
But good intentions aren’t enough, and as economist Victor Claar in his new book, neither are manipulative trade initiatives. For Claar, author of Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, the fair trade movement simply “cannot deliver on what it promises,” and Christians would do well to pay heed.
Thus, Claar focuses the bulk of his critique on whether such initiatives truly achieve long-term and sustainable success and prosperity. Does fair trade actually lead to the enrichment of the lives it touches, or does it simply give them a temporary boost? Does it — or can it — lead to “transformational, lasting change,” or is it simply our way of giving them a few extra nickels for that week’s bread and milk (not wholly insignificant, mind you)?
Given that coffee is perhaps the most popular of fair-trade commodities, Claar focuses his attention there, providing an initial overview of the coffee market itself, followed by a discussion of fair trade strategies as commonly applied. Here, we learn a few important things: (1) coffee is easy to grow, (2) its price is inelastic, and (3) the “market appeal” of one’s beans is essential for success. Additionally, and most importantly, (!!!) demand is dropping while supply is rising.
“Simply put,” Claar explains, “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.”
The book offers plenty of arguments against such schemes, but this often unspoken reality illuminates the most central: Artificial, top-down fair trade programs toy with price signals and manipulate individuals to do the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Incentives matter,” says Claar. “Once the stakes of any economic game have changed, people alter their behavior accordingly.”
Join us on Tuesday, May 17, from 6:30-8:00 PM at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506) as what is sure to be a very enlightening and lively discussion.
For more information on tomorrow’s Acton on Tap click here.
Click here to read the entire blog post on Common Sense Concept.