Poverty—the Bible and Public Policy

13 May

I have noted before that poverty figures large in the Bible. Again, and again, from the Psalms to the Sermon on the Mount, we read that God hears the cries of the poor and reaches out to them, feeding the hungry, curing the sick, releasing the prisoners, placing the humble ones on the same level with the rich and powerful. 

A typical theme is expressed in Psalm 12:

Then the Lord speaks out.

I will act now.

For the poor are broken.

And the needy groan.

When they call out

I will protect them.”

In the Magnificat, we hear that God will feed the hungry and let the rich starve.

Until recently, I was perplexed, because the poor are always present in the Bible. As Jesus says, the poor you will always have with you. And the poor are ever-present with us today. 

It seems that no matter how frequently or how empathetically the call goes out to eliminate poverty, it is never successful. The same can be said of our public political life. We have legislated the Great Society, we have waged a War on Poverty, we have organized Poor People’s Campaigns—but poverty and inequality remain.

Recently it occurred to me that the biblical call is not to eliminate poverty—that will happen only at the end of history.  Rather, the poor are to be respected and cared for. Respect and care—we may be more ready to work for eliminating poverty than to respect poor people as they are. We seem to believe that poor people have to change before we can grant them respect. Does economic and social status affect our status as persons to be respected? Does poverty deprive a person of personhood? Similarly, does greedy bourgeois capitalism deprive a person of personhood?

The point here is that one’s personhood is to be respected no matter what its socio-economic garb. We are most likely to disrespect the least among us, especially the poor—hence the biblical emphasis on hearing their cries, as well as the claim they will sit with kings. The poor do not have to earn respect by changing their socio-economic status. After all, society assigns status, but our dignity as persons is inherent  in our very existence.

Caring for the poor is also mandated. They may never go away, never escape poverty, but they must be cared for whatever their status. Social democracies— which includes most industrialized nations, particularly those in Europe – – have rather well developed social welfare nets that provide care for the poor and other marginalize groups. The United States is more likely to stigmatize poverty and to leave children, and disabled persons to get by on their own. Our understanding of capitalism is such that it considers dependence on social welfare to be morally reprehensible

On the whole, it would seem that it is easier to care for the poor, grant them social welfare, then it is to respect their dignity as persons. Traditionally, the United States has had difficulty dealing with either of these.

The biblical approach to poverty seems quite straightforward, and rather simple to translate into social policy. The inability of our American society to make this translation is a matter, worthy of reflection and understanding.

Phil Hefner, 12 May 2023 

One Response to “Poverty—the Bible and Public Policy”

  1. Richard Busse May 13, 2023 at 5:22 pm #

    Intersting ninsight

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