Christians may remember that, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus was having dinner with Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples. Mary had a bottle of an expensive perfume called nard and poured it on Jesus’ feet. Judas complained to Jesus that the nard could have been sold for what a day laborer could expect to earn in a year and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus’ response was classic when he told Judas to leave her alone about it:
“For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (John 12:8)
This implies that poverty was not a new problem in Jesus’ day and he knew that the problem was going to persist long after he had returned to Heaven. Although Christians are commanded to help the poor whenever possible, it can seem like an intractable problem, especially when you factor in the fact that poverty is a generational problem. This does not necessarily mean that the problem can’t be solved or at least reduced. It just means that the problem of poverty may need to be tackled from a different angle in order to reduce it in a meaningful way.
The Government Fights Poverty, Right?
If you were alive in the 1960s, you may remember when Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” By 2014, the American federal and state governments had spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty. Even so, poverty levels still hover at about 15% and hasn’t changed much from the 19% of Americans who lived in poverty Johnson’s War on Poverty began.
A 4% decline is still good, right? Not when you consider how much money federal and state governments spent to get that 4% decline. A lot of that $16 trillion went toward the expenses of maintaining the welfare agencies’ bureaucracy, including paying the salaries of people who do nothing but manage the paperwork. As of November 20th, 2017, the U.S. population was 325,361,284. That means 48,804,192 Americans are living below the poverty level right now if one figures at the 15% rate. Obviously, the American government hasn’t gotten a very good value for its money if the goal is to end poverty.
That’s not so great news for Christians (and others) who think that they can just take the lazy route of sending tax dollars to the government in the assumption that the government will use those dollars to fight poverty. Charitable donations plummeted after Johnson announced the War on Poverty because it was assumed that the government would take care of it. Beyond that, charitable leaders of the 19th century noticed that charity was more likely to succeed in lifting people of poverty if charitable efforts focused on giving the impoverished the tools they needed to do it themselves. Give a man a fish and he’ll be back for more handouts. Teach a man to fish and give him a halfway decent fishing pole, and you probably won’t see him again anytime soon.
So work or education requirements for welfare aren’t so very unreasonable if the government is really so serious about fighting poverty. It would be helpful if state and federal government agencies did a better job of doing this because simply giving handouts does not provide incentives for the impoverished to do what it takes to lift themselves up to the point where they don’t need to rely on the handouts.
If this sounds un-Christian, one should remember that the impoverished in Jesus’ day were usually widows, orphans, those who were disabled or shunned due to a medical condition, and those who were too lazy to work – and those who were interested in helping the poor would have preferred not to give money to those who were capable but simply refused to work. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) That one rule would have cured the Deadly Sin of sloth real fast because most people will decide that they would rather work than starve. However, government welfare agencies do not seem to have figured that out yet.
For the record, I do make a distinction between a reasonable requirement that welfare recipients pursue part-time work or an education and a requirement that becomes a human rights violation. I am opposed to government-run Universal Basic Income because it might be a good idea in theory, but is very vulnerable to the government crossing the line between reasonable conditions that provide incentives for welfare recipients to take the required steps to escape poverty, and unreasonable demands that is designed to disproportionately harm the less fortunate and flat-out unlucky.
Governments might be okay at mitigating some of the symptoms of poverty, like hunger and homelessness, but aren’t as good as true free markets at encouraging the less fortunate to help themselves. That becomes a problem if governments and their welfare programs were to disappear tomorrow or if governments begin to make unreasonable demands in exchange for welfare payouts. It could happen. If in doubt, just remember that 20 states can and do suspend state-issues professional licenses or drivers licenses of people who default on their government-backed student loans. This can make it difficult for professionals to get their careers back on track if they’ve had a run of bad luck.
However, a lot of people are so used to the idea of government handouts that they don’t see how peer-to-peer microlending and Space Age technology can actually do a better job of helping the poor. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are alternatives that are already available or coming down the pike and have very little to do with governments and tax dollar allocations.
There May Be Hope
Extreme poverty throughout the world is actually declining on a year to year basis. While the number of people living in poverty may never be zero, there are signs that people can lift themselves out of poverty if given the opportunity to do so. Kiva exists for this reason and runs on the premise that microloans can help people in developing countries start or expand their own small businesses and become self-sufficient. OneWeb aims to bring Space Age technology into the fight against poverty and the hopelessness that comes with having no way out of the vicious cycle of poverty by launching satellites that can bring Internet access and the new opportunities that come with it to impoverished communities. These tools might require that the impoverished keep up their end of the deal by actually using them, but you only need to see Kiva’s success stories and smiling faces to know that it can be worth the trouble.
It may surprise some people that Kiva and OneWeb are free market options that can mitigate poverty better than governments can. When a private citizen has only so much money to invest in making the world better, that person won’t want to throw money down the tubes if he or she can possibly help it. Charity Navigator exists because smart donors want to make certain that their donations are going where they’re supposed to go. Those same people may have been conditioned to assume that the government can do a better job of solving a problem if it can only throw more of the taxpayers’ money at it, and that’s not necessarily the case when so much of the government-funded welfare programs’ budgets go toward supporting a bureaucracy.
That basically means that Americans shouldn’t feel guilty about taking the tax deduction for charitable contributions. It also means that the free market isn’t necessarily the evil boogeyman that it’s been made out to be because it rewards the generation of value in a way that is capable of not only lifting up the impoverished, but also enriching the entire human race.
More People Earning Money – And Spending Money!
One of the basic principles of free market economics is that, when more people can participate in the free market on an even footing with everybody else, the GDP will go up accordingly. Bring new active participants in and they will both produce value for other people and consume value produced by other people. The difference between free market economics and welfare payouts is that free markets don’t give people payouts for just breathing and is also less likely to kick the janitor out just because his boss is nice and gave him a little holiday bonus.
The free market is also less likely to make value judgments about any transaction that is purely voluntary. In some parts of the world, the cost of living is less than $1 a day, making them attractive places for corporations looking for cheap labor. This looks like a good way to help some people escape extreme poverty, except it is very easy for customers and government agencies in the U.S. to fall into the trap of assuming that the cost of living in a Third World country is exactly the same as it is in the U.S. Most of these potential employees would rather make $1 a day and be able to afford pretty basic food, shelter and clothing than have no job and starve on the streets. So I don’t bash Melanie Trump for a fashion brand’s decision to outsource its manufacturing to places where labor is cheap – a decision that she probably had no input into other than lending her name to the brand – because it beats watching people starve because nobody will invest in the region they live in.
When more people earn money, they will also spend that money. It’s hard to call what OneWeb is doing “charity” because it’s backed by Coca-Cola and the Virgin Group. Perhaps these backers anticipate that there will be demand for soft drinks and cell phones in the regions that will benefit the most from cheap access to satellite Internet once people start using it to access free educational platforms and earn a living. Give people cheap Internet and a cheap mobile device, and they could access platforms like XBTFreelancer and the upcoming Blocklancer without having to worry about verifying their identities. Then they can use those earnings to buy necessities and maybe even the occasional luxury like a 12-pack of soda pop.
Maybe a future Coca-Cola marketing campaign will feature people who benefited from OneWeb and can enjoy a cool, refreshing Coke that they bought with their earnings. Sure, it’ll boost Coca-Cola’s profits in the long run. You don’t have to be a cross-dressing Ferengi to see the economic value of what OneWeb is doing. When more people can earn a living on a level playing field, everybody wins because there are more people pouring the value that they have to offer into the pot.
Exploitation Still A Concern
Employers will look for the best value for their money that they can get while hiring. Fact of life, and sometimes this leads to some not-so-great results. As a freelancer, clients have come to me complaining that the cut-rate freelancer they tried to hire first did a lousy job with an article, and could I rewrite it. If I can make out what the original writer was even trying to say, then I usually can do some cleanup.
This doesn’t change the fact that a lot of freelancers are at least trying to earn a living even if they aren’t so great at English. However, they can be vulnerable to exploitation because they usually don’t have much legal recourse if a client steals their work without paying them. Many people in Third World countries don’t have a photo ID card, they don’t have a bank account, and they wouldn’t be able to access the same financial and legal services that the rest of us take for granted.
This problem isn’t even limited to Third World countries. Albuquerque, New Mexico, mayor Richard Berry is a strong supporter of a local program that offers day jobs to the homeless for $9 an hour, a sack lunch, and a place to sleep that night. He’s talked to these people. Many of these homeless people say that they would rather pick up litter than panhandle, but don’t feel like they have a choice.
Kellie Tillerson, director of Employment Services at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, said of the problem: “Many have medical conditions, they don’t have the proper identification — you can’t get a job without one. They don’t have a Social Security card. Those little things we take for granted prohibit people from getting a job. Don’t assume they are lazy.”
When they can find jobs, they can fall victim to crimes such as wage theft, a problem that costs workers billions of dollars a year.
The Bottom Line
Jesus told Peter to, “Feed my sheep,” not, “Give your money to Caesar because you can trust him to do the right thing by caring for the poor.” It presumes that the private citizen is in a better position to understand the needs of his local community than a distant federal government is. It also presumes that most people of Jesus’ day worked for a living if they were capable of doing so and the “deserving poor” would work if they could, but were hampered by a health problem or the standards of the society that existed at that time (or both). Sometimes people were unlucky; James and John were having a bad night of fishing and were probably complaining to one another about their poor luck and its impact on their ability to earn a living until Jesus showed up, for instance.
Cryptocurrencies, distributed ledgers, and decentralized marketplaces can make it easy to help the poor and maybe get a little something out of it too. They provide a way to trade value for value in ways that wouldn’t be possible in an environment where the mainstream financial sector gets into the middle of every transaction and can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to address the problem of extreme poverty. That’s something Christians should be able to get on board with if they’re really serious about helping the poor.