America’s unofficial poverty program for most of the nation’s history could be called, in a word, “liberty.”
In spite of a horrendous civil war, half a dozen economic downturns and wave after wave of impoverished immigrants, America progressed from near-universal poverty at the start of the nineteenth century to within reach of the world’s highest per-capita income by the end of that century.
The poverty that remained stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because it was now the exception, and no longer the rule. Our free and self-reliant citizenry spawned so many private, distress-relieving initiatives that American generosity became one of the marvels of the world.
The US population in 1900, at seventy-six million, was more than fourteen times its 1800 level, yet per-capita GDP had quadrupled. That explosion in production and creativity translated into a gigantic leap for average personal income and a steep plunge in the portion of Americans living in abject poverty. Of economic progress in the nineteenth century, despite a Civil War and other setbacks, Dr. Barry Asmus has written:
On the eve of World War I, after a century of remarkable progress in the United States, economic growth and its benefits for raising the standard of living were evident for all to see. It was a time during which capitalism (cynics call it “Social Darwinism”), was given a chance, the role of government in economic affairs, while substantial in some instances, was quite limited in scope. Living standards, longevity, and economic opportunity grew to levels unimaginable merely a hundred years earlier. Though progress was uneven, and some people grew fabulously rich, it was in part the poor who experienced the greatest improvements. By the end of the nineteenth century, America’s poor enjoyed material living standards significantly higher than most of the world’s population.
For decades after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, few Americans and none of our presidents pressed for direct government aid to the impoverished. That was not because they were a cruel and heartless people, but rather because they saw the alleviation of poverty as a personal assignment.
For many reasons, private “civil society” groups are generally far more effective in solving social problems—poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy, for instance—than are government programs. They are more likely to get to the root of problems that stem from spiritual, attitudinal, and behavioral deficiencies. They are also more inclined to demand accountability, which means they won’t simply cut a check every two weeks without expecting the recipient to do something in return and change destructive patterns of behavior.
Ultimately, private associations also tend to promote self-reliance instead of dependency. The Bible calls us to closer, personal relationships with the poor that elevate their dignity and initiative. When private groups accomplish this from a faith-based mission, they are in keeping with biblical command.
If these groups don’t produce results, they usually wither. The parishioners or others who voluntarily support them will put their money elsewhere. From start to finish, what private charities do represents a manifestation of free will. No one is compelled to provide assistance. No one is coerced to pay for it. No one is required to accept it. All parties come together of their own volition.
Therein lies the magic of it all. The link between the provider and the receiver is strong because each knows he can walk away from it at the slightest hint of insincerity, broken promises, or poor performance. Because each party gives his own time or resources voluntarily, he tends to focus on the mission and doesn’t get bogged down in secondary agendas, like filling out the proper paperwork or currying favor with those in power.
When men and women of faith get involved in charitable work, they focus on changing hearts, one heart at a time.
Editor’s note: This is a continuation of our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, which is available for pre-sale here. This post was adapted from Lawrence W. Reed’s chapter entitled, “A Poverty Program That Worked.”
What are some other examples of poverty programs that worked? Leave your comments here.
- Part 1: For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty
- Part 2: Who Are The Rich & The Poor?
- Part 3: What Does It Mean to Help the Poor?
- Part 4: How Should the Church Help the Poor?
- Part 5: Four Principles of Poverty Alleviation
- Part 6: What Does the Old Testament Says About Poverty and Riches?
- Part 7: Ancient Rome, Mosaic Law, and Poverty Relief
- Part 8: The Church’s Role in Poverty Alleviation
- Part 9: The Causes of Poverty in the New Testament
- Part 10: Sin: The Root Cause of Poverty
- Part 11: What Can the New Testament Teach Us About Fighting Poverty?
- Part 12: What the Five Myths of Jubilee Mean for Poverty
- Part 13: Acts 2-5 and Poverty
- Part 14: Christian History’s Radical Approach to Poverty
- Part 15: Two Proven Ideas to Help the Poor
- Part 16: Critiques of Market-Based Poverty Alleviation
- Part 17: Why Income Inequality Has Little to Do with Poverty
- Part 18: When Income Inequality Is – and Isn’t – a Problem
- Part 19: Freedom – A Poverty Program That Worked?
- Part 20: One Woman’s Journey from Welfare to Work
- Part 21: Charity – An Insufficient Conclusion?
- Part 22: How People Who Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day Taught Me to Redefine Poverty
- Part 23: Why A Ukrainian Church Turned Down American Aid
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