Let us pretend that you have had cable television for about fifteen years (since 1999). The first year that you had it, you paid $50/mo for 100 channels. The next year the cost went up to $55 for those same 100 channels, but you thought, “Well, I’ve really enjoyed watching (American) football on ESPN and more games seem to be shown on it each year, so I’ll keep my subscription.” The next year the cost went up to $65 for the same number of channels and you let it go again because where else would you be able to find classic episodes of Cops? The fourth year they added about ten channels – of which about three of them interested you – and increased the cost to $85, but you were addicted to the re-runs of Seinfeld on TBS, so you kept the subscription. The fifth year the cost went up to $125 and they added another 15 channels, but you were still okay with it because you had become obsessed with USA’s Monk. The sixth year the cost increased to $195, but it was still okay because you can never get enough of Richard Dawson on Family Feud. The seventh year the cost ballooned to $330 and you still justified it because the cable company threw in the NCAA basketball package for free. Year after year the increase came but you found a way to view it as acceptable until somehow you found yourself in 2013 paying $800/mo for about two hundred channels – of which you only watch 25. When you did the math and realized that you were paying sixteen times as much for only a marginal increase in entertainment – which certainly did not include a corresponding increase in opportunity (there are, after all, only so many hours in the day), the cost appeared to you both obscene and absurd! But now your wife is hooked on Fox News, your oldest daughter cannot get enough of the constant Big Bang Theory re-runs, your oldest son goes into withdrawals when he cannot watch his four football (soccer) matches a weekend and your two younger kids have to see what asinine problem Team Umizoomi must fix next (anybody for some, “SUPER SHAPES?!”). What are you going to do? Risk the wrath of the entire family by cutting it off? Or be Mr. Nice (but poor) Dad and keep on justifying the cost?
The logic (or illogic) of the ever-increasing spending situation starts to really set in with a situation such as that above. Likely it would not take you fifteen years to call an end to the yearly increase in cost for a relatively small increase in service, but it sometimes does take that long for reality to bite. Sometimes autopilot sets in and you find yourself justifying the unjustifiable, just because it is easier for your sanity and your emotional state not to question it. Sometimes the daily routine of coming home from a long day at work and turning on the television for a reassuring walk in the shoes of your favorite protagonist is so soothing that it disconnects the link between your pocketbook and the return on investment. But at some point, presumably the point where it starts to really pinch necessary things (and likely well before the costs for cable television reached $800/mo in reality), the costs definitely outweigh the benefits and the long-promised cut comes.
If the analogy above hits home because it is an everyday example and because nearly everybody not named Donald Trump would cut it off well before the costs distended to 16 times what it had been, it astounds me that so many people – normal, everyday people – are so unconcerned about the costs of the “War on Poverty.”
The War on Poverty is celebrating (is “celebrate” the right word?) its fiftieth (that’s five-zero, 50) birthday on 8 Jan 2014. Looking at the graphs highlighted above (courtesy of familyfacts.org), in the year the “war” was declared by President Johnson (1964) the spending by the federal and state governments for the poor was ~$60billion in CY2011 dollars (certainly not an insignificant sum at the time). In 2011, even after several attempts at “reform,” that number had increased to $927billion – or, as you would guess based on the title and my analogy, a 16-fold increase. During those 47 years the poverty rate (which had already declined from 22% in 1962 to 19% in 1963) declined to a steady state between 11% and 15%. The decline was real, but there is little, if any evidence that the spending on the War on Poverty actually contributed to it. As the amounts spent doubled, trebled and sixteen-tupled (is that a word?) the level of poverty remained flat.
The rational person among us would say two things in response to these simple statistics: 1) further increase to spending is silly and wasteful; and 2) there must be some other reason – beyond simply how much money is thrown at the issue – for poverty being endemic. I do not believe that by looking at those graphs – which are about as reduced and distilled as you can make the argument visually – one can say that there is a correlation between government spending and poverty level, much less that higher government expenditures on combating poverty actually reduce the number of individuals living in poverty.
Now we could go deep in the weeds and possibly find that a significant number of those who received government expenditures due to being below the poverty line were helped significantly by it (though I doubt that you could come to that conclusion empirically, even if a few heartwarming stories could be unearthed) and we could probably get deeper into things to determine that there is some marginal good felt in some seemingly unconnected sectors of the economy by government expenditures on the poverty war. But in either case, the positives are deeply outweighed by the opportunities lost to the creators of that wealth through ever-expanding outlays by the confiscators in Washington DC.
This idea is shown on the smaller scale by my analogy. No middle-class family, living on a month to month basis and sensibly rationing their income, is going to continue with an $800/mo cable bill when very little value (if any) is squeezed out of the service/product provided. In fact, it is very unlikely that a middle-class family in 2013 or 14 would spend more than $200/mo on cable television. The family may be able to rationalize spending a certain percentage of its income on the entertainment provided, but as soon as it reaches a point at which the family cannot afford their rent, food or toilet paper, the cable is out! Instead the family would have to be compelled to spend such unrighteous sums on so minuscule a return.
Unfortunately, the same logic employed by the rationing family does not occur with government spending and force is employed by the government to remove hard-earned dollars from the earners in order to give to more “deserving” (a term meaning different things to different people) people … after all, the “rich” (a term meaning different things to different people) always have more money to tax (so say certain voters). The normally rational thinking patterns people employ in their personal financing is disrupted and leads inevitably to uninformed, irresponsible and morally bent voting to transfer money from one group of individuals to another. The actions of these voters make their thought patterns become clear:
– Mr. A is suffering due to unfair rules which create unequal outcomes
– I’m a good person who doesn’t want anyone to suffer
– Mr. B is doing well due to luck not enjoyed by Mr. A or due to a rigged game which allowed him to come out on top even though he didn’t deserve it
– I feel that it is the government’s job to alleviate Mr. A’s suffering
– I know that to alleviate the suffering of Mr. A, the government needs money
– I feel that taking the money that Mr. B has legally made in order to give to Mr. A is the right thing to do
– The money the government is spending to help Mr. A isn’t helping Mr. A … maybe we just need the government to spend more money
– Where do we get the extra money for the government to help Mr. A? I know! Mr. B – he’s still rich!
– Why is Mr. A not doing better? We keep giving him money to help him.
Fifty years later, after several attempts at reform and after year upon year of increased outlays, the problem remains but the busybody voters still have a short-circuit between their rational budgeting and what they expect of the government and have made up their minds that the course we are on is the only course available to us. So we bankrupt our future through increased borrowing to feed the insatiable appetite of the people who are smart enough to realize that they can make more money doing nothing productive and accepting the handouts of the government enticed by the means-well-but-irrational voter. Or we remove both the products and the incentive of the hard-workers and risk-takers in order to increase the gifts and incentive to the lazy and irresponsible.
There is a law of diminishing returns being seen in the War on Poverty and it is one that is inherent in its irrational and unrighteous actions. Any help which is given to those who are truly down and out through no fault of their own is undone at ever higher rates by the subsidization of an ever-growing class of leaches. It is no wonder that poverty expenditures mushroom with each passing year of government excess. The ranks of government handout receivers are not going to seek to stop the flow and they are joined resolutely by the well-meaning irrationals who insist that Mr. B can pay for it. This forms a coalition which continually breaks the backs of the types of hard-working people who built the wealth being exploited.
The perpetuation of such silly and reprehensible waste is a product of a misplaced idea of problem solving. The well-meaning person voting money to Mr. A out of the public treasury is eschewing their own personal responsibility to help out the needy person in order to lay the problem on society – an inappropriate level for an individual problem. The act of a government taking more (as a percentage) from one person than from another is unrighteous in itself, not to mention reprehensible simply through its natural outgrowth of voracious gluttony for the products of others’ work. And the continual feeding of money and power into the leviathan of an impersonal bureaucracy is a recipe for continual waste, leading ultimately to destruction for any country.
With all of that said, let me move away from the political and economic for a moment to talk specifically about the spiritual aspect of this issue. First, Christianity is a religion which states unequivocally that we all have a personal relationship with God. We are not saved by being a part of a group, such as a church, club, non-profit or demographic type. We are saved because we have determined personally, individually and specifically to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and to accept the healing and forgiveness found in Jesus.
Second, Christianity teaches that one of the acts of worship to God is in giving. Not (necessarily) through some intermediary, but individually, purposefully and directly. This leads to a personal interaction between the Christian and the effort/work to which he gives.
Third, Christianity teaches that there is value in hard work. Production – or “fruit” – is a necessary ingredient for the Christian life. The person who produces something of value is always proud of their contribution. It is something simple and inherent to the human nature to want to contribute in a meaningful way. Conversely, sloth is considered an abhorrent sin.
Finally, the early church did not attempt to provide help to the needy through the unwieldy, impersonal and unrighteous Roman Empire. Instead, personal attention was required by the elders, deacons and members of the local church to provide for the local needs.
If our salvation is gained independently of one another (God certainly will not hold the sin of my neighbor against me), why would attempt to answer God’s instruction to help the poor by shrugging it off onto the state? If part of our offering of worship is to give to the needy why would we choose a secular third-party to make our offering? If sloth is a sin, why would we encourage that by rewarding it? And if the early church (indeed the church throughout history) provided relief to the poor apart from the ruling power, why would we insist upon it?
In closing I want to make one thing clear. In no way do I advocate doing nothing to help the impoverished (yes, I know that was a double-negative) – after all, I made it abundantly apparent that giving is an act of worship to God. I am simply saying that the War on Poverty has failed because it misidentifies the cause of the problem, confronts the symptoms incorrectly, encourages laziness and assuages the guilt of the people who pass the buck. It is time for the United States to take a step back from its rampant and wasteful spending and for Christians, individually and corporately through their churches, step up and do what is right and good and proper. Perhaps after 50 years of Christians doing their jobs there will be a 16-fold decrease in poverty.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 (NIV)