“Blessed be he who considers the poor!” (Ps. 41:1). Many people have chosen to forfeit this blessing and to persist in ignorance of the true condition of the poor in our land. President Nixon, however, has shown his consideration for the poor by his recent address to the nation and in the subsequent outlines of his proposals to Congress. A generally favorable response has greeted his suggestions for revamping much of the present welfare system. Critics have found fault more with the limitations on the funds to be spent than with the general direction of the proposals. It is difficult to imagine any legislation in this area that could not be faulted for failing to provide enough to those in poverty and enough to the states and cities with their desperate need for funds. As we all know, however, programs to which the government commits itself have a way of escalating their expenditures. The fundamental question is not, How much?, but rather, Is this the right direction? In general, we think it is.
Two things about the present programs of Aid to Families with Dependent Children have been especially reprehensible. Many men found that their families could obtain more money on welfare, small as the amount was, than they were able to bring home from their poorly paying, often irregular jobs. To make the family eligible for aid, however, the man had to leave home. He had to break up his family in order to provide for it. The President’s proposals for family assistance eliminate this predicament. Also, present programs generally reduce welfare aid by the exact amount of any earned income. At first glance, this might seem to be only fair to the taxpayers (leaving aside the problem of the substandard amounts given in aid). But such a policy has in practice discouraged attempts to secure part-time or low-paying jobs. The President has wisely recognized the need for encouraging adults to become part of the work force by allowing families to continue receiving government aid, in gradually reduced amounts, while increasing their total income through outside earnings. His proposals for job training and placement are also essential to the long-term goal of reducing the number of those needing aid.
Even more important for the country and for the individual is the development of the children presently on welfare so that when they are grown they can contribute positively to our economy. When those who grow up in impoverished environments try to enter the work force, they suffer competitive disadvantages that are rarely overcome. Poor food and shelter and health care take their toll on the ability to acquire the physical and mental skills so necessary for the kind of jobs that will be increasingly unfilled in our technological society. They will be unfilled, that is, unless we are alert to the need to cultivate our future manpower while it is still young.
In part this cultivation can take place in the homes of the poor when they can stay together as families. But much of the cultivation must be done in the schools. Yet the persons who most need what good schools can do to offset poor home environments are the very ones who have to attend poor schools. This is why other parts of the President’s proposals are so vital to its success. Federal revenue-sharing with state and local governments is needed because, though education is by far the biggest expense on the local level, not enough is being spent on it, especially in the areas where poor people live. Until we make the schools that serve poor children superior institutions that can do much to compensate for the disadvantages of poverty, we cannot expect that when these children grow up they will make a great contribution to our economy. (It was the presence of comparatively good schools in many of our large cities that enabled earlier generations of poor children to gain good educations.) If we are willing to invest in adequate assistance to families and substantial improvements in the schools that serve the poor, then in years to come the contribution in taxes from the gainfully employed children of the poor will more than repay the admittedly high costs of welfare reform.
What is the role of the Christian in relation to the poor? The Scriptures tell us that we will always have the poor among us, but we are not told what percentage of the population they will be. The implication of apostolic teaching is that we should do what we can to keep the percentage low. The exhortation to love our neighbor calls us to do what we can, consistent with our other responsibilities, to reduce the level of involuntary poverty.
Christians, of all people, should encourage planning that looks beyond the present to consider the future. The President is to be commended for taking this long view of eventual returns to society. We must urge in addition that men not be concerned with relieving material poverty only. “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul?” There is a spiritual poverty in our land, as there has always been, that is even more destructive in its long-term effects than is material poverty. All members of society, Christians included, are to do what they can to relieve material poverty and to enable the poor to become productive. But only Christians are entrusted with the message of God’s grace, which is the remedy for spiritual poverty.
Yet many Christians, out of understandable concern for fulfilling this spiritual responsibility that is uniquely theirs, have overlooked biblical implications that we are to be concerned for those who are materially poor as well.
This ought not to be. Christians have a valuable contribution to make in helping the poor even when judged by the standards of secular society. We are entrusted with a message that, when believed, can give genuine joy and hope even to those whose earthly possessions are few, and can give motivation for good work habits and reliability, which employers seek. Another way in which Christians can help is to enter occupations that bring them into contact with the poor, such as social work, police work, and teaching. Since God has enabled us to be free from the lust for material possessions, we should be more willing than others to assume these low-paying positions. Moreover, following the example of our Lord, we should be better able than others to take gracefully the unwarranted abuse that may come from those whom we seek to serve.
Christians rightly value the divine call to enter full-time ministry. But God does not always lead in that direction. We need to recognize that He may also call His people to enter occupations that particularly enable them to share in the blessings promised to those who consider the poor.
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