Charity is not enough

One argument that I sometimes hear from those who are perhaps more right-wing politically, including Christians, is that our response to poverty should be through charity, often instead of or at least as a higher priority than through political approaches such as seeking structural reform, economic reform, higher taxation, redistribution or limits on rent-seeking.[1]

The idea, I think, is that the resolution of poverty is an individual aim, not a public or state-level aim: primarily the efforts of the poor (both to refrain from falling into poverty in the first place, and to get out of poverty as fast as possible in the second) plus perhaps a bonus helping from the rich. As though what is mostly needed is the effort of the poor, and if someone wants to be nice and help them along a bit that is all very lovely and commendable on the nice person’s part but isn’t strictly necessary for the ending of poverty let alone a moral duty.

This may not be a fair depiction of the approach that favours low tax, low public expenditure and high charity, but it’s not a view that I comprehend so I may struggle to portray it fairly. I can imagine taking this view if I genuinely believed that poverty was in very large part the fault of the poor: their fault for doing something that made them poor or kept them poor, or failing to do something that kept them from poverty or got them out of poverty. If this were the case, then I could see reason behind a view that thinks there is no need for either the state or the better-off to help the poor, and that if the better-off want to use their income (read ‘thoroughly-deserved earnings’) to help the poor, then that’s nice for them, but neither you nor the state should force me to give my earnings to someone else, thank you very much.

A Christian may even argue that such a position is Biblical: that whilst the Bible commands charity, it also commands that people work to support themselves, and consequently there is no demand on the Christian that they seek the kind of economic, structural change in society that would end poverty by, for example, raising the minimum wage, improving state education, building social housing, investing in health and social care, funding public transport, and laying fibre-optic cable throughout the country. The command to work plus the command to give indicates a Bible that supports capitalism: you work to support yourself; you give out of your private surplus; it is all very individual and non-state controlled.

But this is to miss another key command of the Bible: not just to support yourself; not just to give; but to defend. Not merely to go along like the Good Samaritan, patching up those attacked by the bandits of life, but to fight off the bandits in the first place. Not just tending to the sheep ravaged by a wolf, but fighting off the wolf before it reaches the sheep. It’s not enough to help people after they’re hurt; after they’ve become poor; after they’ve been left behind. Defending others against harm means making sure that no-one becomes poor.

It means making sure that there are no disadvantaged parts of the country where life expectancy is a decade behind the healthiest, healthy life expectancy is two decades behind,[2] and learning is 18months behind.[3] It means making sure there is no distortion in the justice system where your income has become more important than your innocence when it comes to reaching the truth at trial, because the State cut legal aid and the poor can’t afford the best barristers. It means making sure there is no such thing as toxic jobs that actually make people too sick to work, never mind condemning them to poverty and misery.[4]

The narrative that the poor are poor through their own fault, rather than through the injustice of the country in which we live, is a lie.[5] It is a wicked lie which God condemns, for it is scoundrels who use wicked methods, who make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just (Is 32:7). Where are the Christians calling for justice and pleading with integrity (Is 59:4)? Where are the ones who will promote the cause of the needy? How long will we displease our Lord with our lack of justice (Is 59:15)?

Charity is not enough. It is not biblical if it is on its own. God demands justice.

[1] income derived purely from owning something and renting it to others; exclusive of maintenance and administration costs). [2] [3] [4] There are four ways in which the nature of work can adversely affect health: through adverse physical conditions of work; adverse psychosocial conditions at work; poor pay or insufficient hours; and temporary work, insecurity, and the risk of redundancy or job loss. In 2014, an estimated 1.2m working people in Great Britain had an illness or health condition believed to be caused, or exacerbated by, their current or previous work placement.

[5] There is plenty of evidence that poverty is a structural issue, but this blog is about the Biblical command to defend the poor and seek justice, so I’m not listing all the evidence again here.

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