How (Not) To Help the Poor

In a First Things editorial entitled “What Should We Do About the Poor?”[1], the editors discuss alternatives to addressing poverty.  Though this essay is about twenty years old, it still offers sage advice for assisting the genuinely “disadvantaged poor.” The editors mention the traditional “conservative” approach—namely, to stop giving out money in order that the poor will become more responsible for themselves and less dependent on others. To the ears of many, this approach can sound calloused and lacking in compassion. As we’ll see, this has much to commend it, but we must do more than this.

By contrast, the “liberal” approach tends to measure compassion by dollars directed toward social programs. While we can commend the desire to assist the poor, the method has proven to be wasteful and deleterious. As far back as 1979, the noted black economist, Walter Williams, wrote in Newsweek that the government’s $250 billion spent that year on helping the “poor” was simply wasteful and mismanaged.  If it were just distributed directly (and equally) to the “poor,” each of them would have received an astonishing annual payment of $34,000.  A huge proportion of this welfare money never reaches the recipients since bureaucratic agencies siphon off most of it before it gets to them.[2] Besides wastefulness, this approach typically breeds long-term dependency—turning safety nets into hammocks—as well as creating a deepened and regularly reinforced sense of entitlement.  

Now, there is much to commend the “conservative” approach. This is borne out by the statistics. Taking persons off the government dole and trying to move them toward becoming productive contributors to society has proven effective. In fact, ten years after Bill Clinton worked with a majority Republican Congress to pass welfare reform legislation in 1996 (albeit reluctantly, you may remember), he wrote in the New York Times about the very positive results:

In the past decade, welfare rolls have dropped substantially, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million today [in 2006]. At the same time, caseloads declined by 54 percent. Sixty percent of mothers who left welfare found work, far surpassing predictions of experts. Through the Welfare to Work Partnership, which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, more than 20,000 businesses hired 1.1 million former welfare recipients. Welfare reform has proved a great success, and I am grateful to the Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to work together to take bold action.[3]

Unfortunately, despite these past gains, the pendulum has now heavily swung back toward government dependence. The number of those receiving government assistance as of May 2012 is 49.1%–from 44% in 2008.[4] 

Commenting on economic and social concerns in the black community, Walter Williams states that racial discrimination or a “legacy of slavery” doesn’t adequately account for these problems. (Another black economist Thomas Sowell has made similar observations.)  In his Race and Economics, Williams documents the following: In 1925, 85 percent of black households in New York City were two-parent households. This was also true of black households in Philadelphia in1880—though at 75 percent. In fact, in the late 1800s, 75.2 percent of black households nationwide were comprised of two parents and children—and 73.1 percent for native whites. By contrast, two-parent households are at 30 percent in the black community.[5]

While the First Things editors would agree that the government should not support the able-bodied who can find work but do not, they urge going beyond this to actually empowering the disadvantaged poor. This empowerment can come through several important avenues. First, empowerment comes through safety and crime-reduction in poor neighborhoods. For example, citizens can volunteer to patrol unsafe neighborhoods in cooperation with local law enforcement authorities. Also, since many who are poor have a failing or non-existent support structure at home, concerned citizens can serve as role models and friends through community and religious organizations (e.g., Christian churches, Big Brothers/Sisters, Alcoholics Anonymous, Salvation Army, Prison Fellowship, Catholic Charities). In fact, before government welfare programs formally came into existence, America’s churches and volunteer/charitable organizations served to assist and empower the poor: they urged family involvement to help care for their own flesh and blood; they encouraged personal responsibility and accountability; they insisted on labor for food—unlike many of our soup kitchens today! Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion tells of this seemingly lost chapter of our nation’s history.[6] 

Another means of empowerment is education. Unfortunately, public education has failed the poor (see the film Waiting for Superman). Education has been taken away from parents and local communities and placed into the hands of teachers’ unions and bureaucrats. To turn the tide, state or county officials in conjunction with parents and teachers should make available viable educational opportunities to help children keep out of dead-end, failing schools. One important way to do this is through injecting some competition into the educational system, granting tax vouchers for less-fortunate parents who can then send their children to schools that are actually performing well. Despite the rhetoric of many Washington politicians to support public schools unconditionally, these typically send their own children to private schools, and even public school teachers in places like Chicago are sending their own children to private schools “in droves.”[7]

Another factor to add is the powerful redemptive uplift that spiritual regeneration/conversion to Christ can bring. Olasky mentions this in his Tragedy of America Compassion.  He notes that these volunteer charities and churches knew that the only answer to the habits and mindsets of some people was God and his grace. They could be transformed from being idle and irresponsible into being frugal, industrious, and self-controlled. The gospel has power to transform attitudes and behavior, including one’s work ethic.

These are some practical ways in which the poor can be holistically empowered, and the church should once again take its place and fully engage genuine poverty in our midst—and avoid failed “solutions” that continue to plague our society.  

The apostle Paul knew that there were ways to help the poor—and not to help the poor. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thes. 3:10). Earlier he wrote to them, “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thes. 2:9).  Paul serves as both a model of hard work and economic independence from others, and he addresses the problem of the able-bodied who refuse to work. These are not to be confused with the “unfortunate poor” who, through no fault or irresponsibility of their own, find themselves in dire economic straits. In the Proverbs and elsewhere, Scripture repeatedly rebukes slothfulness and promotes hard work, planning for known future needs, and industriousness. But the poverty that comes from slothfulness is different matter from the poverty of the genuinely needy—orphans and widows in distress (Jam. 1:27).  

My next blog will highlight one further means of helping the poor—one that has actually brought millions out of poverty for more than two hundred years


[1]Richard John Neuhaus, “What Should We Do About the Poor?” First Things (April 1992). Available at:

[2] Walter Williams, “Commentary,” Newsweek (Sept. 24 1979), 57-59.

[3] Bill Clinton, “How We Ended Welfare, Together,” New York Times (August 22, 2006). Available at URL:

[5] Walter Williams, Race and Economics (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 2011).

[6] Olasky’s book is published by Crossway Books (1992).

[7] Matt Vespa, “Many Chicago teachers send kids to private schools” Washington Times (Sept. 15, 2012). Available at:

10 Responses to “How (Not) To Help the Poor”

  1. Excellent article.

    My only concern with how this is presented is that there is not any differentiation between our personal efficiency in helping the poor and the government’s efficiency. Just because the government giving money to the poor is inefficient does not mean that us giving money to the poor is inefficient or giving money to responsible organizations.

  2. Dr. Copan,

    As an admirer of your work, I’m surprised you cited _Waiting for Superman_ as justification for some of your paragraph on education. Although it does highlight some problems, it has also been hailed by many as a deeply misleading film. You might want to read _The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education_ by Diane Ravitch to balance your conclusions.

  3. There is much to be said about wastefulness of government bureaucracy. but we are also giving the individuals of our society way too much credit for our desire to help the poor. the natural inclination of man is to take what seem to be theirs and spend it on themselves. and as we are all too keenly aware, there are always places where we can “responsibly” spend our money, no matter how much we earn. members of a certain local ministry to the homeless can hardly raise enough money to pay for their own salaries even under the best of circumstances.

  4. Paul,

    I appreciate this article. I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for the past couple of decades on behalf of the low-income, homeless and otherwise disadvantaged population. I wholeheartedly endorse the philosophy and methods that work towards self-sufficiency to decrease reliance on government subsidies. You would be hard pressed to find non-profit agency engaged in the provision of housing and social services that would not have this goal as part of their mission and many work towards that end. And this also takes to varying degrees some funding from state or federal sources.

    However, my concern with your last paragraph and the delineation of “able-bodied” workers and disadvantage poor does not account for the complex barriers that many of those experiencing poverty encounter. Being able physically is only one part of the equation deep-seated cultural and environmental issues, mental illness, substance abuse, etc creates a disparity for workability. So effective social service programs recognize that these barriers must be addressed first as they work with folks to transition them into a self-sufficient lifestyle. Without the assistance of subsidies this task becomes infinitely more difficult. So while I think we all would like to see less dependence on government and enforce personal responsibility, we also have to consider the complexity of poverty.

    I actually wish that non-profit community organizations and providers of social services would be given a greater role in administration of subsidies as it would be far more effective than what currently exists under state and federal programs.

  5. John Stossel recently had an episode on his show about this topic. He is an agnostic so he is arguing for the same point from a secular perspective. Now it’s interesting to see what Scripture says about this.

  6. Delwyn Xavier Campbell October 20, 2012 at 10:34 am

    How nice of you to quote Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, however, that still leaves unanswered the fact that Those statistics also come from a time when blacks were FORCED to create our own economy because of Jim Crow. Black folks have been working hard for decades, so if all it took was hard work, we should OWN YOU!
    When White Power changed its tactics and accepted integration, blacks foolishly walked away from our own economy to support the white economic system, placing our money in white owned banks which we then went to, trying to get home and business loans and either being rejected or approved under inferior conditions.
    Since more whites are on welfare than are blacks, “physician, heal thyself.” Erase all those white single moms and low income families through church-led assistance, and then we can taste your pudding.

  7. James, I would emphasize that local/community involvement is typically far better than management at a federal level. The federal government will know nothing about my personal concerns whereas local volunteers will likely be much more in tune with my situation and be better able to determine whether support is warranted. See Marvin Olasky’s Tragedy of American Compassion for more on this.

    T’sinadree, I was merely citing Waiting for Superman to highlight the problem, but I should have clearer. Thanks.

    Francis, I think that mentioning how local ministries struggle is important—and also how there are lots of “causes” out there. So, yes, there are judgment calls to be made whether the specific distribution of money is overseen by the federal government or more locally (say, through block grants). I think that available state or county monies should be directed toward community services and ministries that clearly make a difference in helping the needy and getting people on a better life track (e.g., Prison Fellowship. What George W. Bush tried to do with Faith-Based Initiatives was heading in the right direction, but this takes courage and, of course, oversight.

    Lisa, thanks for your comments. I would agree that “able-bodied” is one important part of the equation but certainly there are complexities. That is why more local involvement, oversight, and discernment are important in the process. Excellent insights

    Gold City Dance, yes, I’m familiar with John Stossel. Didn’t know what is worldview is. Yes, I am sympathetic with some of the things he has to say.

  8. Delwyn, thanks for your comments. You are certainly correct about the wrongness of Jim Crow legislation and all the harm it brought. It would be impossible to address all of the complexities of race and injustice in a blog. The main focus was on how the poor, whatever their race, should best be helped in America today, though this has broader international implications as well.

    One of the reasons I mentioned the black community/family is that it has been most directly and evidently harmed by the welfare system, as these authors point out. This is not to say that other groups haven’t been harmed in like manner. I think Shelby Steele gives much insight into some of the underlying issues of race and discrimination in his book The Content of Our Character, which I have found persuasive. In addition, Thomas Sowell has written not only about domestic trends, but about the dynamics of race and economics globally. He helps the reader see common patterns and trends internationally on race, poverty, economics, and justice. Some of these books are: The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective; Conquests and Cultures; Migrations and Cultures. So, my main point is that there are more just, compassionate, and effective ways to help the poor of any race than through an unsustainable, inefficient, corrupt and corrupting federal welfare system. I would, with you, emphasize equal opportunity for all, not judging people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

  9. And what of government “welfare” to corporations and the rich… much of which I also personally benefit from?

    It is hard to read this not through the filter of conservative, Republican polemics about the poor. It is hard not to assume a back story to many of your assumptions.

    I am all for responsibility, education, and empowerment, but often these platitudes miss the realities of our society. I 100% believe that the church and personal spiritual transformation of course offer the best route out of poverty… however often this takes a generation or so… witness the rise of pentecostalism in South American and how it took a generation or so to move beyond the slum into the middle class.

    Still, does the rise of welfare roles in the last years also not correspond to the world wide financial crisis bought on by those who abused their own “benefits” from the government?

    How many people are working yet still receiving welfare because their job does not meet their actual family needs? How many did work and are now retired? How many are veterans, and possibly mentally or physically disabled? How many are college students?

    And of course, the reality that the single largest demographic recipient of welfare is children.

    And of course, the dirty little Republican secret: the vast majority of people on welfare are off it within a year.

    I commend your article and think it is a way forward, but it seems that writing off government aid completely (which I don’t assume you are suggesting) and offering assistance to the most vulnerable of our society, is most certainly a bridge too far.

  10. I realize that writing “vast majority” is probably too vague and not exact… I would amend it to a significant portion are off of the roles within 2 years. Not sure of the exact percentage and there is work to be done, and surely people abusing the system, but I was shocked when I saw how many people actually get off of welfare in what seems like a fair amount of time.

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