Why it’s wrong for Christians to blame the poor for their poverty

poverty americans

No one better summed up the modern-day Republican stance on personal responsibility than Herman Cain did while running for president in 2012. He said, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded; it is a person’s fault if they failed.” Yes, society has freeloaders who fail. But this statement goes beyond that. It says that anyone who’s unemployed during a recession is to blame for their situation. This includes teachers and police officers who were laid off due to budget cuts. This includes architects and construction workers who lost their jobs due to a collapse of the housing market. This even includes sales reps who fail because they refuse to tell the lies it takes to succeed in selling products and services for dishonest companies. This statement also says that those who are not rich are at fault. In other words, if people struggle financially because they’ve chosen low paying jobs that help others, like teaching or social work, they’ve done wrong; meanwhile, those who seek riches above all else are righteous, even if their schemes bring more harm than good to society, as was the case in the financial industry crisis that sparked the Great Recession.

Is Cain’s view consistent with the Bible?

Let’s examine Exodus 22:21-24 which says, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict [‘take advantage of’ in the NIV] any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Unlike Herman Cain, God does not blame the poor for their poverty in this quote, nor does He blame them (or accuse them of class warfare) for being unsatisfied and crying out. He blames those who place them in such a situation, namely the rich and powerful. To God, poverty and oppression result from evil committed by the powerful, not from choices of those unable to support themselves.

Cain made his statement in response to Occupy Wall Street protesters who cried out against the sins of the financial industry and the corporate world that have expanded the nations disparity of wealth over the last 30 years. While not everyone at those rallies was poor, they represented lower income Americans, some of whom had it pretty hard. Rather than heed the cries of the poor and their representatives, Republicans like Cain have turned a deaf ear to them. This behavior defies Proverbs 21:13, which says, “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered.” Some of us might read this verse and imagine an ancient world where the poor literally cry in anguish as wealthier people walk by. But this is not how poverty looks in the real world. In the real world, the poor usually cry out in an organized fashion. They organize politically to cry out for help in paying for health care. They organize into unions to cry out for fair wages – wages that provide food, clothing, shelter, basic enjoyment (yes, having some pleasure in life is a necessity), and a wage appropriate for their contributions to their companies’ successes. They even cry out to the government to organize itself to protect them and their environment from the harmful effects of corporate greed.

Rather than close our ears to the cry of the poor, the Bible requires that we have compassion on them. For example, 1 John 3:17 says, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” Republican Christians will respond to a verse like this by saying they do have compassion on the needy. Indeed, many Christians give money to help those in foreign nations. This is a good thing. Unfortunately, when it comes to the American poor, their hearts close. Some will say they choose not to help the American poor, because we have a system to meet their needs. This is true. However, it’s this system that Republican Christians, especially those of the Tea Party persuasion, are hell-bent on abolishing. They tend to believe that America is the land of opportunity; therefore, those who finish last deserve to suffer for not taking advantage of America’s opportunities.

Let’s remember, however, that opportunity is only opportunity. Opportunity combined with hard work doesn’t assure prosperity. Many try their best and still come up short. The formula for prosperity is hard work, plus opportunity, plus God-given ability, plus knowing the right people, plus luck (changes in market conditions, etc.). Only hard work is within our control. The rest is beyond any person’s control; therefore, we must not arrogantly close our ears to the cry of the poor and working class in our country. Much of their suffering is beyond their control. Here’s a short list of opportunity destroyers beyond any person’s control:

1) Competition – A wave of spiritualism, promoted by books like The Secret, has immersed America in a can-do spirit that conflicts with both the Bible and reality. This religion teaches that those who focus on something they want badly, such as money, good health, or a career in a certain field, will receive what they desire if they dwell, to the point of obsession, on positive thoughts of desire and avoid negative thoughts. Some call this the Law of Attraction.

The Law of Attraction, unfortunately, is a lie. It’s invalidated by a much more powerful force, something I like to call the Law of Competition. My Law of Competition says that if you obsessively focus on becoming president of the United States in the year 2020 and never doubt, and 1 million other people do the same, only one of you will become president in 2020. It won’t necessarily be the one who wants it most or thinks most about it, it will be the one who competes best. The rest of the presidential hopefuls will fail, despite all of their positive thoughts. This Law of Competition applies to any situation where an object of desire exists in smaller quantity than those who desire it.

Law of Attraction proponents often speak of how we live in an abundant universe. This, too, is a lie. The necessities of life, along with pleasurable things, exist in limited quantity; therefore, we must compete for them. Among these necessities are jobs.

Republican Christians who despise government assistance programs often tell rags to riches stories to convey the point that in America, the land of opportunity, everyone can have a high-paying job if they just try hard enough. It’s certainly true that hard work can lead to great riches. However, it’s only on the individual level that hard work, etc. might lead to riches. On a national level, not everyone can be rich or close to it. Even if all Americans were to work their hardest and get PhDs, they wouldn’t all prosper. In such a situation, if our nation had 160 million workers and only 140 million jobs, 20 million people with PhDs would be unemployed. And if 30 million jobs paid less than $10 per hour, then 30 million people with PhDs would earn what is a pretty unlivable wage. The reality is that the majority of jobs in America are low-paying, and regardless of how hard everyone tries, the majority of people will be working-class poor. It’s just like a foot race; someone has to finish last.

Since capitalism has always been a system of winners and losers, it’s wrong for Christian leaders and politicians to promote the lie that every individual can win simultaneously if they just try hard enough. Instead they need to ask, “How badly must the losers lose? How badly must they, being created in God’s image, suffer for not being smart enough, well-connected enough, or cut-throat enough to make it in a dog-eat-dog economy?” We need to address the realities of our winners and losers system rather than pretend that poverty is a choice.

2) Injury, Illness and Disease – I could share with you one of many stories of people whose employment options are limited by physical disabilities or who suffer so much chronic pain that they struggle to function on the job, but I think everyone has at least seen, if not known, someone with such struggles. Sometimes we can blame someone for a disease that may have resulted from irresponsible health choices, like smoking, drug abuse, or poor food choices. But for every case like this, others suffer chronic headaches, fatigue, etc from toxins in the products they use or in the environment. Not only are these illnesses not their fault, but they are often the fault of those who enrich themselves through environmental neglect. (I, for example, found after many years that I’m allergic to chemicals used to make mattresses flame-retardant. I suffered a decade of relentless sinus infections and headaches when windows were closed over the winter. Now I sleep on an air mattress, and sinus infections and headaches are rare.)

Not only does poor health hurt job performance and limit career opportunities, but medical bills devastate family finances. Illness and injury play a major role in more than half of all personal bankruptcies. And, prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, in ¾ of these cases, the injured or ill person was insured.

3) Below Average Intelligence – Many politically-conservative Christians say, “If you work hard, and you’re smart, you’ll be successful.” This statement implies that the opposite is true: If you’re lazy and stupid, you’ll fail; and failure, according to Herman Cain, is your own fault. Most individuals can take some blame for laziness, health permitting. Stupidity, on the other hand, is different. If you attended public school, you may recall some childhood classmates who struggled to learn. In my elementary school, those were the kids in the 3rd reading group. They weren’t bad kids. Many of them behaved. They simply struggled to learn. Some really struggled. I remember coming home from college for a visit and seeing one of those kids who really struggled, now an adult, pushing a broom at the local grocery store. It’s likely that broom pushing was about as high-paying a job as he would ever find. According to many Republicans, even those who are Christians, this is an example of a bad person who deserves a life of malnutrition, squalor, and misery, all because he’s not-so-smart. If he has children, they deserve misery, too, maybe even starvation or death from exposure, all because their father lacks intelligence.

Proverbs 14:31 says, “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor Him.” If any of us were born too stupid to figure out how to get rich, or even get a job, we are as God made us. It’s no person’s fault that they’re stupid; it’s God’s fault. Yet, God has no faults! Therefore, people are as smart as God made them, and no one has the right to judge God’s creation. When we blame the poor for their lack of intelligence, we “insult their maker” – God – for making them as they are, and we judge God as evil and incompetent. Those to whom God gives smarts, skills and lucky breaks have no business being arrogant toward those who receive a less lucrative package of abilities from Him. And nowhere does the Bible say that less intelligent people should struggle to survive as punishment for their stupidity.

4) No Time, No Money – When I think of people who have insufficient time and money to achieve business success, I think of Sofia [fake name to protect identity]. Sofia worked a 40 hour week as a teller at a bank my company partnered with. She also worked a 40 hour week as a cashier at a grocery store. The average pay between those two jobs was probably around $10 an hour. So her reward for 80 hours of hard work was $800 a week, or about $40,000 per year. At the same time, I earned $45,000 per year (working about 50 hours per week) and lived in a one bedroom apartment. On my income, I could pay my bills, save a few thousand a year for retirement and take a week-long vacation. The difference between Sofia and I was that Sofia had kids. With kids, Sofia had no opportunity to save any money or enjoy herself as I did. (Conservatives often argue that poor people are irresponsible for having kids they cannot afford. This is an anti-biblical claim. Bearing children is a God-given right. “Be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28),” is God’s first command in the Bible. I won’t go as far as the pope and say birth control use is sin, but I’m certain that choosing not to use it is righteous in God’s eyes, since it didn’t exist throughout most of human history.)

Having to work 80 hours for low pay, Sofia had no extra money to fund a business start-up or seek higher education, nor did she have time to develop skills that could lead to higher-paying jobs or dream up entrepreneurial innovations. Having come from a low income background, Sofia was stuck in low income jobs, investing all of her time and money in present-day survival rather than in future ambitions. Millions of Americans suffer similar disadvantages. Few of our nation’s millionaires, on the other hand, have ever suffered these disadvantages. Most of them have come from middle to upper class families that fund their ambitions and free up their time to develop marketable skills and dream up big ideas.