False Divides and True Values in the Fight Against Poverty

Part 1: The Value of Work

It’s a familiar scene: On one side of the debate, there is a compassionate liberal who has good intentions but thinks little about the nation’s fiscal health and places little emphasis on personal responsibility. On the other side stands a cold-hearted conservative who is practical and grounded but somewhat unaware of genuine hardships facing low-income Americans. Unfortunately, such an ideologically-charged image pushes us to commit to a position rather than any particular values. In our eagerness to be “true progressives” or “good conservatives,” we jump as quickly as possible into party lines rather than carefully exploring what the most holistic, ethical approach to anti-poverty policy might look like. Only after figuring out what “our side’s” approach is do we dig out our Bibles and flip to some verses that seem to justify our positions.

The problem, however, as former Congressman Paul B. Henry wrote in Politics for Evangelicals, is that “mediation seldom involves situations where political virtue is exclusively on just one side of the equation.” If Christian millennials want to resolve bitter gridlock, we need to reconsider how we enter the debate. Our aim should be promoting our core values, not our core ideologies.

In the case of poverty, we propose there are two root issues policy needs to address. The more obvious problem is human survival. If people cannot afford adequate food and shelter, their lives are endangered. But the second, more subliminal issue is equally important: human dignity. Cornel West, in his book Race Matters, describes low-income African American neighborhoods as filled with “a profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair.” Interviews with the poor all over the world confirm that they experience fear, alienation, and despair and that these psychological hardships cause more suffering than their material deprivation. For anti-poverty policy to be truly effective, it needs to improve living standards and promote human dignity.

Having identified these root issues, how do we discover the values we believe anti-poverty policy should embody? As Christians, we recognize that the Bible points us to principles that enable true human flourishing, the ultimate goal of anti-poverty policy. Instead of scanning the Bible for key words and stinging proof texts, we should read with an eye for timeless principles and animating values to take into the anti-poverty debate. This approach doesnot mean only one “Christian” position can be found on any policy issue. It is important, however, to start our thinking about political debates by establishing biblical principles and then and only then test policy proposals against those values.

If Christian millennials want to resolve bitter gridlock, we need to reconsider how we enter the debate.

By looking to the Bible for anti-poverty approaches and reading other sources commenting on biblical texts on poverty, our research team found several instructive practices God commanded to Israel in the Torah in order to alleviate material poverty. Gleaning, a practice we will discuss in this series, is described in Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God” (NIV).

As we move forward with this text, keep in mind that we are not advocating for gleaning specifically; we are suggesting that biblical practices are culturally-specific embodiments of enduring truths. The Israelites were instructed, quite against contemporary American instincts toward profit maximization, not to attempt to gather every last bit of grain from their fields or fruits from their orchards. Instead, they were to get the majority of the harvest and spare the extra effort it would have taken to gather the gleanings to allow those who did not own land of their own to come and obtain food by picking it. From the practice of gleaning, we deduce two key values: work and generosity. The first, work, I will discuss here. My research partner Hannah will cover the second, generosity, next week. 

The value of work is an idea that gets tossed around often in today’s anti-poverty debates, and our research revealed its significance in scriptural references to poverty. Proverbs is the clearest proponent of work as a value that combats poverty. Consider for example Proverbs 10:4 which reads, “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth”; or the similarly themed Proverbs 14:23 which says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” In these and many other proverbs (see, e.g., Pr 13:8, 20:13, 21:5, 21:17, 28:19), we see that industriousness and responsibility are paths to prosperity while their opposites, laziness and negligence, can lead to poverty. Consequently, an economic system can encourage its citizens to uphold the value of work by rewarding diligence and punishing laziness.

But scripture does much more than present hard work as important for its own sake. A deeper look into the practice of gleaning reveals that by valuing work, we attack the two root issues of poverty. First, labor leads to production and wealth, increasing provision of societal goods and raising health and living standards. If no one undertakes the initial work of planting and harvesting the field, there can be no surplus for those who are less fortunate to reap. Work thereby prevents the material deprivations of poverty.

Second, working to provide for one’s own needs strengthens self-esteem. Had poor Israelites simply waited for wealthier landowners to come distribute surplus crops to them, they would have robbed themselves of the dignity that self-sufficiency (or as near its equivalent as one can get in unfortunate circumstances) bestowed on them. Thus, work enables self-sufficiency which prevents the psychological harms of poverty.

For the poor in contemporary America, finding work and sustenance is not as simple as walking over to the neighbor’s freshly harvested field. Factors other than lack of land ownership separate would-be workers from jobs, and lack of education may be chief among them. The problem is deep and multi-faceted, as is the search for solutions. Investment in job readiness training, apprenticeship programs, primary and secondary education in low-income neighborhoods, and prison re-entry training are examples of programs that can and do help. We cannot eliminate the problem of dignity without work, and therefore we should affirm economic and social programs that require and develop a measure of self-sufficiency.

But encouraging work is only half the story in fighting poverty. While we must affirm the value of work, we must strive just as diligently to uphold the corresponding value of generosity. In part two of this series we will see how complicated yet holistic a values-based approach to alleviating poverty must be. By moving away from divisive platforms and towards shared principles, we can expose false divides of partisanship, shed light on true values shared by all Christians, and work towards the ultimate restoration God promises.  

-This article series is a product of the 2015 McKenna Student Faculty Research Project at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The members of the research team are Dr. Amy E. Black, Professor of Political Science; Dr. Michael Graves, Armerding Professor of Biblical Studies; Hannah Considine, senior Bible and theology major; and Kira Dittman, junior political science major. The broad aim of our research was to analyze contemporary anti-poverty policy through the lens of Old Testament ethics.