Toward an Older Model for Helping the Poor

In the last 80 years he United States, following its counterpart nations in Western Europe, has developed the full welfare

Fr. John Heaton
Fr. John Heaton

state.  Setting aside the reasons for this aspect of public policy, many of which were likely noble, and had to do with justice and mercy, we should acknowledge the plain fact that it is unsustainable.    The

country spends more than half its money – and borrows more – to pay for this and that public assistance program.  The borrowing that is necessary over the next fifty to one hundred years to pay for these unfunded liabilities is conservatively in the $85 trillion range. Other models place it above $200 trillion.  Few in government talk about this; I have heard no credible plan to address it.

My opposition to this state of affairs runs deeper than dollars.  Any program this big certainly helps people in the short run.  My own relatives have benefitted from Medicare, Hospice and other federal programs. That doesn’t necessarily justify it, but I’m not arguing that point.

There are a few basic principles regarding public charity that we find in an unlikely place, the Old Testament.  In no particular order, they include the following:

First, charity was voluntary.  The ancient Jews were commanded in the Scriptures to care for the poor.  It wasn’t optional.  That said, failure to show charity did not invoke a civil penalty, tax, or other sanction by the civil authorities, from the local elders all the way up to the king.  Charity thus remained radically decentralized, and intensely local.  Part of the alms given in the Old Testament was paid to the Levites, who were not only supported by them, but who were also tasked with matters of public health and welfare.  This is was a function of the priestly order.

Second, charity was never bureaucritized into a permanent dole.  Even in the early tradition of the church, widows who were certainly the most vulnerable were not to be “put on the list” unless they were sixty or older.  A permanent dole tends toward permanent poverty.  Charity to relieve temporary distresses had the effect of moving the able-bodied into productivity.  It is precisely because an entitlement dole deadens the work ethic that we never find this in the Scriptures.  To the contrary, St. Paul would quip, “if a man does not work, neither shall he eat.”

Thus, third, charity required work.  It was easy enough in an agrarian culture to invite the poor to glean the fields during the harvest.  For this purpose farmers were required to leave the corners of their fields uncut, and to “leave handfuls on purpose.” Those who needed food were then able to apply themselves to the business of harvesting it themselves.  Granted, we should not necessarily construe “corner-cutting” to be sufficient for sustaining life year-round.  After all, harvests only came seasonally.  The principle, however, is clear:   work is part of the solution to poverty.

Here we encounter hundreds of objections regarding those whose circumstances preclude them from productive labor, because of health, disabilities and a host of other conditions.  That needs to be addressed, but at present, we are dealing with general principles.

Fourth, charity was personal.  The beneficiaries of any services were known to those who were offering them, or they were relatively close.   While the entitlement state has created vast swaths of low-income housing, it also creates a ghetto – perhaps unintentionally – which locks its inhabitants into neighborhoods that cut off association with charitable givers.  Properties decline. Crime develops.  An unbreakable cycle of dystopian civilization emerges.   On the other hand, personal, local charity was dispensed with clear moral judgments brought to the foreground.  This is perhaps the greatest rub presented to us by advocates of the secular welfare state.   Distinguishing between the “worthy” poor and the “unworthy” poor is unthinkable, with recipients not only entitled to cash, but to total privacy and without relational connection to those who support them.

This runs deeper than money.  It means that recipients of charity are cut off from models of work and family structures that may have salutary and didactic effects on them.  Because they are dis-integrated from the culture that supports them, they have no expectation of rejoining that society as a productive member.  The charity of the Old Testament was clearly aimed at maintaining the integration of the poor into the family, business and synagogue, without regard to economic standing.

Any approach to Christian charity must involve the principles of this older model we find in the Scriptures.  It necessitates voluntary charity, work, and accountability for how that charity is given and received.

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