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Part 19 in a series on A Biblical Answer to Poverty

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.

Lawrence Reed

About Lawrence Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 2008. Prior to that, he was a founder and president for twenty years of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught Economics full-time and chaired the Department of Economics at Northwood University in Michigan from 1977 to 1984. He holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978). He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (Public Administration—1993) and Northwood University (Laws—2008). He is a native of Pennsylvania and a 30-year resident of Michigan, and now resides in Newnan, Georgia.

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