Beyond social work: Reflections on poverty alleviation
How should Christians approach poverty alleviation? By following Scriptural commands for helping the poor, and by working with families, churches, businesses, and government to effect lasting change.

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  • How should Christians approach poverty alleviation?

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  • The family, as William J. Bennett likes to say, is "the most effective anti-poverty program ever invented."

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  • Is giving cash the right response? What would truly help a homeless person I see on the street?

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"The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me." (Mark 14:7)

How should Christians approach poverty alleviation? This question has haunted me for several years, and to be honest, I've never been completely confident of the right answer. I have, however, come across many thoughtful people who have worked directly with impoverished communities, explored Scriptural commands for helping the poor, and researched the roots of poverty and the sources of wealth creation. These thinkers have helped shape my thoughts not only about direct giving and action, but also about the crucial roles played by intermediary institutions such as family, church, government, and business:

Family – Social scientists have long been aware of a "trifecta" of poverty prevention: those who 1) finish high school, 2) get a job, and 3) wait until marriage before having children have only a 2% chance of ending up poor. The family, as William J. Bennett likes to say, is "the most effective anti-poverty program ever invented." Given the significant changes to family structure that have occurred in the United States over the last fifty years—today a majority of new mothers age 30 and below give birth out of wedlock—faith communities simply cannot discuss poverty without addressing the state of the family. Creatively encouraging strong, healthy families is one of the most important anti-poverty measures.

Churches – Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, authors of the best-selling When Helping Hurts, have opened my eyes to the ways that good intentions can sometimes inhibit people from rising out of poverty by engaging in relief, when development is called for instead. In fact, poverty alleviation is about reconciling relationships—not just for those who are materially poor, but for both the recipient of support and me, since we are both broken and in need of Gospel reconciliation. To achieve lasting healing and transformation, the church has a vital role to play.

Government – Public policy and social programs can also help the poor, though such programs need to be implemented and supervised with modestly and care. Lawrence M. Mead of New York University, one of the architects of the 1996 welfare reform, has suggested that "rather than justice, the proper rubric for today's antipoverty quest is charity." Government programs do have a role—we need a basic social safety net—but faith-based communities have a complementary role to play, particularly with regards to volunteerism, offering a vibrant, local community, and encouraging mutual care and individual responsibility.

Business – U2's Bono made headlines with his recent comments on capitalism and entrepreneurship: "Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid." Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute—where I've worked the last four years—would agree. As he points out, since 1970, 80 percent of the world's worst poverty's been eradicated, thanks to the spreading property rights, free trade, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship. There is much more to be done in extending this positive trend by promoting sound, pro-growth policies.

Individual – Perhaps the most consistent daily contact I've had with poverty is with panhandlers on the streets of Washington, D.C. For a long time, I felt a moral dilemma as I walked by them on the street. Is giving cash the right response? What would truly help a homeless person I see on the street? I have learned from the stories and suggestions of others, such as Chris Horst of HOPE International, who encourages looking people in the eye instead of avoiding their gaze, acknowledging cash as the least helpful solution and only offering it as a last resort, and offering directions or assistance for connecting the individual with local ministries and specific city programs.

Finally, it's worth remembering the last part of Jesus' direct mention of poverty alleviation quoted above: "But you will not always have me." We should help the poor because God commands us to do so. But that relational connectedness to Christ—and the personal, loving, truth-speaking engagement he modeled—is what distinguishes a truly biblical approach from mere social work.

Greg Lane is a program development associate with the Values & Capitalism project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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