Christian Charity and the Welfare State
- Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The correct answer for a Christian to give when asked, “Who bears the responsibility for doing charitable deeds?” is “I do.” Answers such as “the rich” or “society” are evasions of individual responsibility. It is not a Christian duty or prerogative to force others to join us in charitable endeavors. It is erroneous for us to suppose that we are doing God’s will by compelling or trying to compel others to do good deeds. We are accountable to God for what we do, not what we make others do. Paul teaches each of us to “work out [our] own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).
The Practical Superiority of Private Charity
From a purely pragmatic point of view, private, voluntary charity is far more efficient than government programs. This is not surprising, since private charities can spend only the funds that they can convince others to give them, whereas public officials have the privileged power of taxation. Legislators are all too willing to spend other people’s money and increase the national debt in order to woo voters by appearing to do good, while the bureaucratic imperative is to spend as much money as possible, since this is what induces Congress to increase an agency’s budget and expand its payroll.
The efficient use of scarce resources should be a primary concern of those who care about their fellow man. There remain countless unmet needs, and for every million dollars squandered through wasteful management, there will be that much less real wealth in society to educate the young, abate pollution, reduce poverty, create jobs, care for the sick, etc. The waste in the federal government’s antipoverty programs is mind-boggling. According to economist Edgar K. Browning’s 2008 book Stealing from Each Other: How the Welfare State Robs Americans of Money and Spirit, in 2005 total government expenditures (national, state, and local) on 85 welfare programs totaled $620 billion, which translates to $67,000 of aid in one year for a low-income family of four. If the poor had actually received that much, obviously they would be far from poor, but the majority of that aid was consumed by bureaucratic overhead.
What makes private, voluntary charity more efficient is that the donors are closer—perhaps face-to-face—with the recipients of aid than is the case with massive government bureaucracies. Just as those who begged for alms in the Bible had direct contact with potential benefactors, who could judge for themselves whether the beggar was truly unable to provide for himself rather than a free-loader, it is far easier for private charities to screen out the helpless poor from the poor-by-choice.
Charity is abused when those who are capable of working, but prefer to accept a handout than lift a finger in productive labor, divert scarce resources from the minority of truly needy persons who are absolutely incapable of caring for themselves. There are those who assert that there are no “undeserving poor,” but the Bible contradicts this assertion. Proverbs 10:4; 13:4; 19:15; 20:13; 23:21; and 28:19, 22 all declare that moral weaknesses, such as laziness and foolishness, may be the cause of poverty.
Jesus himself condemned sloth and lack of productivity. In the parable of the talents, he scolded the passive, unproductive servant and gave the talent that had been entrusted to him to the servant who had been given the most talents, because the latter had shown the initiative to put his talents to productive use. (See Matthew 25:14-30.)
What is to be Done?
The welfare state is massive, entrenched, and growing. The size of the federal government expanded dramatically under President George W. Bush, and it is expanding even more rapidly under President Obama. This isn’t, then, a partisan issue. Neither party resists government arrogating to itself Christian responsibilities. Both are willing to let government absorb the church’s rightful activities. When it comes to welfare programs, neither party advocates the separation of church and state.
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