Talk on Christianity, Poverty and Work, given at Johns Hopkins University

I gave this talk at Johns Hopkins University on April 26th, 2016. I was asked to both lay out my view of a Christian response to poverty, and to rebut NYU Professor Lawrence Mead’s book “From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor,” published by the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Mead is an advocate of welfare reform and advances a Christian theory of enforced workfare.

I. Christian Economic Principles

The word economy comes to us from the Greek oikonomia, meaning (roughly) household management — or more broadly, the right ordering of tasks, resources, the proper procedure of things. The Church fathers use the term to think about divine economy, or God’s methods of dealing with the world in its imperfect state; the Orthodox Church uses the term in a similar way, to refer to the application of Church canons to the daily life of the Church. These uses, though different than our contemporary use of the word, are illuminating for two reasons: firstly, because they remind us that economics is a matter of household management, that is, a matter of rightly ordering the use of our common home; secondly, because they help situate the place of economics in the common life of humankind. For the theologian interested in politics, economics is a matter of determining how best states should manage a particular set of affairs — those having to do with the regulation and use of their resources.

So it’s best to start a sketch for that plan by laying out first principles: in this case, the nature of resources themselves. Understanding what kind of a thing material creation is will help us determine, in Christian terms, what kind of a thing property — not so much a subset of creation as a theory of its fallen state as we’ll see — must be. To get there, I’m going to walk you backward in time through Christian thought.

Pope Francis, in keeping with the vast majority of Christian tradition, views creation as intended for humanity. “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us,” he writes in Laudato Si; humankind was made for stewardship of the earth, a task that belongs to all people in common. Accordingly, all of creation is given to humankind in common. The sentiment that the earth and all its abundance is made for the flourishing of humanity is so utterly common in Christian history that even our liberal philosophers often found themselves submitting as much before Christianity (or, cynically, the veneer of Christianity) became less necessary to advancing liberal thought. From chapter four of Locke’s first treatise on government:

God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.”

This is a gentle formulation of a conception of creation that is expressed less forgivingly by Aquinas, and even less so by the Patristics — among them Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and so. Locke is saying that no legal rendering of property can be just if it allows a person absolute control over resources to the point that others would perish at their whim; such an arrangement would be no more just than allowing a person a claim to the air on their property so absolute that they would be blameless for shutting your windpipe to keep you from inhaling it.

So Locke admits property rights are, within a Christian schema, limited by the nature of property itself: it’s wrong to use a thing contrary to the purpose God intended for it. If the earth was made for human flourishing, manipulating resources to guarantee human demise is straightforwardly sinful. Simple enough.

Two revelations arise out of this reasoning: first, that property is not a metaphysical quality of things; second, that the laws and customs we use to regulate the use of property are provisional qualities of human societies, meant to recover some hope of flourishing in a fallen world. Per Aquinas (ST II-II q 66):

“[It is] not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above. Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”

Aquinas, ever the realist, conditionally agrees with the institution of private property because human beings, due to their sinfulness, have a hard time managing resources otherwise. He observes that private property is a creation of human reason premised upon human agreement: it functions not necessarily contrary to but in accordance with the original intention of creation, so long as custom and law are set up to promote rather than destroy human flourishing. Here he mostly echoes Augustine, who put a finer point on it.
Augustine supposed the introduction of governance, though ultimately a result of sin, was a gift from God meant to remedy a situation in which men could no longer rightly regulate their own impulses. Good governance had, he thought, a better shot at preventing constant antagonism between neighbors than some ill-fated anarchic utopianism. In Augustine’s view, the regulation of private property was one such just function of government:

“God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors. Why? Because God has distributed to mankind these very human rights through the emperors and kings of this world.”

Augustine’s insight here helps us finally distinguish between what the right intent of the institution of private property is, and how the institution itself works — the why and the how, if you will. The intent of private property is to maintain the kind of order that leads to flourishing: that is, to allow all persons the security and stability we need to flourish. Meanwhile, the institution itself functions through various pieces of governance, regulation, and social controls. Taken together, the why of private property tells us the moral parameters within which the how must operate.

We have, in other words, control over how our resources are distributed, via our control over how our governments set up property laws. In fact, property is nothing more than the agreement of law and custom, both (as history demonstrates) entirely within the domain of human control. Having established that much, the question we’re left with shouldn’t surprise you. It stumped the crowd in Luke 3. It troubled Tolstoy.

What then must we do?

II. A Christian Economic Solution

Perhaps now you’re thinking to yourself: that’s all pretty vague. If so, I agree with you. If our holy scriptures, scholastics, and philosophers had succeeded in laying out detailed plans for the management of economies in all places and times, I would be out a hobby, and all that writing would be vastly useless. A good way to think about it, as philosopher Linda Zagzebski points out, is to think about maps.

“Given the limitations of the human mind, we are not able to understand a domain taken as a whole unless we ignore part of the domain we want to understand. The bigger and more complex the domain, the more we have to leave out if we want to understand it…This is a general point about understanding that applies even to the understanding of something as simple as the layout of a city. If every feature of the city was on the city map, the map would be as complex as the city is, and the map would not help us understand the layout. So the map leaves out many things. (From “Exemplarist Virtue Theory.”)”

What we strip out to best make practical use of the principles we’ve discerned are broad, hulking categories. If we want to understand how to apply what we’ve established to the politics of poverty in our country, we can’t imagine “the poor” as they exist all over the world and throughout history; and we can’t imagine our country as an abstract model of a country. Instead we have to come to grips with who the poor really are, and who we are as a nation. Let’s start by meeting the poor.

A. The American Poor

In 2014, according to census data, 22.9 percent of Americans — 72.4 million people — had incomes below the federal poverty line, before taking into account various government programs that lend them aid. This group was not, contrary to popular thought, comprised mostly of non-working, able-bodied adults.

Of this set, 24.2 percent were children; 27.7 percent were elderly; 15.7 percent were disabled; 5.7 percent were students; 7 percent were fulltime caregivers; 6.5 percent were unemployed; 7.8 percent were fully employed but still impoverished; and 5.4 percent were none of the above.

Taken together, children, disabled, and elderly people make up the lion’s share of America’s poor. The remainder, students, caregivers, and the unemployed, all ‘work’ in some sense — they are perhaps not doing labor market work, but they are either looking after others — work that, were it not done by them, would have to be done by someone — or preparing to enter the labor market at some point in the future. Compared to all of these people, the number who might be willfully non-working is a mere 5.4 percent, only about 3.9 million people.

B. The United States of America

So these are our poor: the infirm, the old, the young, those in search of work, those looking after family members, those in some form of school or training, and a small remainder whose exact reasons for being in poverty are unclear.

Who are the rest of us? Members, for one, of one of the richest nations on earth; citizens of a country, for another, which is remarkably successful at reducing poverty when it so chooses. Consider the very populations we’re looking at.

Per the 2014 data: before government programs, 23.8% of children lived in poverty; 43.7 percent of elderly people did; 49.9 percent of disabled people; 27.6 percent of students; 31.2 percent of carers, 30.8 percent of unemployed people; 4.9 percent of fully employed people, and 31.4 percent of those in the ‘other’ category.

After government programs, the landscape is entirely different. While more than 20 million elderly people are poor prior to social security, only 4.59 million are after; for disabled persons on SSDI the number drops from 11.3 million to 6.9 million, with lesser benefits for children, carers, students, and the unemployed — all of whom enjoy programs less robust than the elderly and disabled, who receive — perhaps unsurprisingly — checks in the mail.

The problem of poverty, aside from limiting the participation of the poor in American society and democracy, comes with its own host of objective harms: Poor people are known to suffer higher rates of several diseases, including asthma and diabetes. 42.4 percent of women who had abortions between 2000 and 2008 lived below the poverty line, according to the medical journal Obstetrics & Gynecology; indeed, some 73 percent of women, per a 2005 Guttmacher study, said they sought abortions because they did not have the money to raise children. And, while life expectancy is rising for those Americans with high incomes, a 2014 analysis of the US Health and Retirement Study found that the poorest Americans’ life expectancies are either stagnating or declining. The report found that while a 55-year-old man in the wealthiest decile could expect to live 34.9 more years, a 55-year-old man in the poorest decile could hope to see only 24.2 more years. For the wealthiest versus poorest women, the differential was similar: at 55 years old, a difference of roughly ten years divides women’s life expectancies.

Everyone dies. But when even life itself is in better supply to the wealthy than the poor, and it’s evident from reviewing numerical data that we are capable of reducing poverty through relatively simple programs, it is hard not to be reminded of Locke’s proviso, inherited from Aquinas, inherited from Augustine and his Patristic cohort, inherited from Jesus Christ, whose own wisdom is simply and wholly the truth: there is nothing more precious than human life, for which the Son of God himself laid down his own; and you are your brother’s keeper. Based on these thoughts, it makes sense to me to use all the tools at our disposal — including the state, with its rightful dispensation to manage its resources — to remove the poor from poverty in the simplest, most effective ways we can accomplish. To me, this is one of the foremost duties of a moral state.

III. Social Democracy & Christianity

When I lived in the United Kingdom, I was struck by a curious frustration: my inability to do anything that felt quite like paying for use of the NHS. The system was outstanding in my experience — I never waited more than a day or so to see a doctor, and paid little for prescription medications that are, in the United States, worryingly expensive after insurance pays its dues. I wanted to give something back, but aside from dutifully paying the VAT, there wasn’t anything for me to do. So I donated blood. At the drive cite on one occasion (a Methodist church, incidentally), I chatted up the nurse drawing my blood. Her favorite thing about the NHS, she said — for whatever problems it might sometimes have — was that “whether you’re well-to-do or not very fortunate, it’s there for you.”

What a novel idea I thought then, happy that my blood would be soon flowing through somebody else’s veins, no longer clearly my blood or theirs — part of a community stock of goodwill, really. These kinds of programs invite the participation of the community, and in their formulation make an informative statement about their states’ view of humanity: that we are all equal and equally worthy of living, and that we all have a role to play in the life of society. That’s a strong endorsement of a Christian sentiment that underscores the importance both of individual life and community; for that reason, I find myself supporting several universal-style programs to promote equality.

You might be surprised how many such programs we already have here in the USA. We have, for instance, universally available public school for kindergarten through high school; we have social security and supplemental security income, which, taken together, blanket a significant portion of the elderly — and have been fabulously successful at reducing the scourge of elderly poverty.

Were it left up to me, I would invite more of the same. Consider, for example, a universal child allowance (in lieu of proposed tax credits, which tend to favor the well-to-do, small families): at a rate of $300 per month, such a program would have reduced child poverty by 51 percent in 2012, lifting 6.8 million children out of poverty along with 4.7 million parents. Per my husband, Matt Bruenig:

“A flat benefit like this would have cost around $265 billion in 2012. But recall that I am saying we should get rid of the Child Tax Credit (saving $57 billion) and the personal exemption for children (savings unknown). Thus, the net cost of the total reform is considerably lower than that, and would amount to somewhere a little above 1% of GDP. This is unbelievably cheap. The U.S. tax level in 2012 was 24.3% of GDP according to the OECD. This is one of the lowest in the developed world (UK — 35.2% of GDP; Canada — 30.7%; Australia — 26.5% of GDP; Austria/Sweden/Denmark/Norway/Finland →40% of GDP).”

I would advocate some form of national health coverage, preferably single-payer; and I likewise support expanded parental leave benefits run through the state, with perhaps proportional benefits worked out with employers as well. These sorts of programs seem to me most supportive of families and children, and are thus often popular with European Christian parties. There is always room to adjust policies as circumstances evolve, but for promoting equality and the good of American families here and now, that slate of programs is at the top of my personal list.

REBUTTAL: An adjusted vision of reciprocity and work

In a revised introduction to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ classic epistolary novel of the bureaucracy of the underworld, he wrote that it isn’t possible for a person to have no good left in them, because in that case there would be nothing left. To me, the same is true of arguments. The ones richest and most fruitful to engage, whether or not one agrees, are fertile for thought because there is good in them.

You have probably gathered by now that Dr. Mead and I do not agree on everything. Dr. Teles would have arranged a very dull debate if we did, and that’s simply not the kind of thing he would do. But I want to preface my response to Dr. Mead’s thoughts with a reassurance that we do agree on very much.

We agree, for instance, that poverty is a problem and something ought to be done to reduce it; more importantly, we agree that there should be goals higher than a simple reduction in poverty; that the state and its laws play a pedagogical role for its citizenry; and especially that the inclusion of all classes of persons in the life of society is integral to any Christian project. Each of these are essential Christian aims, and I am very happy and very much honored to debate how best to go about achieving these aims. That our institutions of higher learning are hosting these kinds of conversations and that the best minds in our country (far more a remark on Dr. Mead’s than mine) are engaging them are, to me, signs of a healthy political imagination.

To begin, I’m going to talk a little about historical Christian welfare activities, and intend to draw a distinction between the maintenance activities performed by the Church and state over the years and charity; then, I’ll take a look at how Christians engaged in both activities have traditionally imagined reciprocity and inclusion; next, I’ll propose problems I see with the forms of reciprocity and inclusion currently on the table in our debate.

I. Historical Christian Perspectives on Welfare

How have Christians historically viewed poverty and poor relief? The answer is of course: many ways, in many places. But some themes are persistent enough to be instructive to us: they bespeak the wisdom of centuries of church teaching, and in many cases reflect times when Christianity had a much stronger presence in governance than it does here and now. They can, in other words, give us a good picture of how Christians coordinate and conceptualize poor relief (to the best of their abilities) when they’re running the show. Here, I’m first going to consider how medieval Christians thought of poor relief and reciprocity, contrasting these views with those Dr. Mead has advanced.

A. Is it charity?

From the medieval perspective, sometimes poor relief is charity, and sometimes it is not. When it is charity, the intent isn’t poor relief per se. There is at the very least something more to it than that. Contrary to conceptions of charity as not-other-regarding — that is, as a purely obligatory function, blind to outcome, entirely ordered toward box-checking for the Lord — medieval charity was, at least in the popular imagination, highly relational. In Medicine and Charity Before the Welfare State, Miri Rubin writes: “What is most striking in popular religious instruction in the later Middle Ages is just such broadness and variety of demands for charitable action, within a powerful idiom of charity and brotherhood.”

Charity could take many forms because love has many expressions and people, in all their difference, have many needs and many preferences. Popular charitable activities in the medieval era ranged from the funding of weddings for poor couples to the coverage of prisoners’ debts to payment for the funerals and burials of paupers. Given the locality of all these events — marriage, imprisonment, death — they were often carried out between people who lived in some proximity to one another, and had reason to think of themselves as part of the same communities. John Bossy writes in Christianity in the West 1400–1700:

“It would be idyllic to suppose that medieval charity was a relationship into which money did not much enter. But it was not relevant to the majority of the situations where charity was in question, and all the ‘corporal works of mercy’ (feeding, clothing, hospitality, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead) could perfectly well be carried on without any money changing hands. This was in keeping with the sensible if unheroic view expressed in the canon law that charity was better directed to those with whom one was in some actual relation (that is, one’s kin or neighbors) than to perfect strangers.”

But there were also forms of poor relief that were more strictly that: efforts at alleviating the privations associated with poverty. This system, theoretically parish-based, was imperfect and often exploited; nonetheless its originators, recipients and historians took a somewhat different view of aiding the poor than popular religious instruction aimed at individual lay Christians. Consider John Gilchrist, in The Church and Economic Activity in the Middle Ages:

“The economic revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries created new problems, involving proportionately larger numbers than previously. Also, and this fact is often overlooked, the early Church’s provision for poor-relief had been radically upset. The ancient system no longer held.[…] The papacy circumvented the problem in terms of ecclesiastical administration by encouraging the parish system, and it used the same foundation to provide poor-relief during the rest of the Middle Ages. In addition, there was the charitable work of the various monastic orders and houses and of the religious guilds who tithed their income for that purpose. A useful source of income came from the restitution of ill-gotten gains, the incerta of the usurer, as well as of excessive profits made from trade….Nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it the way that we treat state maintenance today.”

So there was charity — there certainly was charity — but there were also apparently poor relief activities undertaken by the Church and other organizations which functioned in a markedly distinct way from the more relational acts of charity; these acts of ‘state maintenance’, as Gilchrist calls them, were more obviously oriented toward the relief of poverty and maintenance of order. So integral to the establishment of some basic order were these activities that states eventually began to enforce them. (Outcomes varied tremendously across Europe, with poor laws in the north more notoriously punitive than the institutionalized philanthropy developed in the city states of the south.)

“It has usually been maintained that the first activities of the state in the field of poor law were almost entirely negative and repressive, and revealed scarcely a hint of the need for some public relief of the destitute…[Yet] fourteenth-century parliaments were quite aware that a system of public poor relief was necessary, but they did not seek to create one by statute because they assumed that such a system already existed and was adequately defined in the canon law of the Church. When it became evident that the canon law was being broken too flagrantly, the Parliament acted to ensure its more effective enforcement. (Tierney, Medieval Poor Law.)”

The point here is that Christians have, can and should recognize the necessity of two different sets of activities which are both motivated by Christian ethics and involve, at times, overlapping behaviors: charity, which should express our love of God and neighbor, indeed, it should express our love of God through our love of our neighbor; and then forms of poor relief which reflect our duty to order our use of resources rightly, in accordance with the intent of creation. Both forms of behavior are obligatory upon individuals, but the latter is especially obligatory for institutions, like (at some points in history) the Church, and now the state. These entities may also reflect charitable sensibilities, but are less able to carry out actual acts of charity: states don’t have souls, they have duties; they cannot love, but they can appropriately carry out their dispensation to maintain just order.

B. What about reciprocity?

Did the medievals expect reciprocity for their charity? And did that reciprocity help establish community with the poor? Well — yes and yes. But their reciprocity was often of a very different character than that which has been advanced here, and their concerns about so-called able-bodied-beggars should also be illuminating for us.

On the subject of reciprocity, for instance, medievals might have expected — maybe even requested quite forcefully — that the objects of their charity pray for them, on account of the special place the poor seem to occupy in Jesus’ teachings. (It occurs to me that this is the most obvious way to exact some kind of reciprocity from the poor for one’s charity; demanding anything more borders on, well, simply paying someone for regular labor, and perhaps at a cut rate.)

That went on, too, especially after the black plague:

“The first reaction to the Black Death was the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349. Its main purpose was to prevent laborers wandering away from their work to seek higher wages, and, to render this provision effective, it forbade the giving of alms to able-bodied beggars under pain of imprisonment “so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.” (Tierney)
Without presuming bad faith, it does disturb me that the imposition of work as a price for so-called charity results in a not-coincidentally favorable circumstance for the benefactor: a dependent workforce, perhaps paid too little by either employer or state alone to actually build wealth, who are compelled into continued loyalty to employers — despite the conditions of employment — for fear of loss of benefits. One can imagine this prospect was as tantalizing to medieval lords watching the rapid recession of feudalism in the wake of the black plague as it is to employers now.”

II. Mater et Magistra

Ultimately, though, the state does have a pedagogical function, and work is, by many measures, healthy and beneficial. This is a good reason to mount educational campaigns about the social and psychological goods of work. But I would hesitate to premise aid on the fulfillment of work requirements for a few reasons. First, as Cambridge theologian John Milbank points out, to do so would actually be to apply a different standard to the poor than to the rich:

“But if money given to the poor must sometimes require that they give something in return, then this rule must apply also to the rest of us. For if the poor are us, then we are also the poor, at bottom entirely dependent on the bounty of nature and the gifts of other human beings.

It follows that the wealthier should also receive as reward, in terms of salaries, bonuses and state benefits, only what can be justified in terms of both their needs and their social contribution…if workfare invokes mutual fairness then this implies that such a principle should be applied all the way up. And that would be both radical and Christian.”

Any requirement that the poor reciprocate aid with work should be matched with reciprocity for the rich, surely; for the owners of capital, who own but do not work; for the children of the wealthy who receive but do not contribute; for landlords and renters and so on. And yet we don’t often see any such plan advanced — indeed, even the radical left isn’t all that interested in seeing the wealthy non-workers work as much as it is in seeing their wealth redirected to a more just distribution.

Here it’s crucial to recall that the state, through its property laws and economic regulations, controls both market income and transfer income; it sets up the rules of both games, indeed, there’s only one game. If we’re going to use transfer income as a tool to modify the behavior of non-work in the poor, then it’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t use market income as a tool to modify the behavior of the wealthy — or everyone, really.

The possibilities are endless, and needn’t stop at non-work. Why not refuse market or transfer income to any person who has a child out of wedlock? Maybe that sounds too tempting to some. We could as easily refuse transfer or market income to those guilty of having premarital sex, committing adultery, entering into irregular marriages, lying, keeping other Gods before the God of Christianity — you get the picture. Once we’re up for using material privation as a behavior modification tool in a Christian framework, the question becomes: why stop at non-work, a behavior not even listed among the Ten Commandments? Surely our aspirations could be greater.

This is especially the case because non-work itself seems a relatively minor and provisional issue within Christianity; especially when a) we conceive of ‘work’ as contemporary labor market work, quite alien to the ancient world; and b) we suppose that work, through a moral good, must be distributed pretty arbitrarily to able-bodied men and women. Children in the ancient world certainly worked — children in our world today work — yet it’s taken for granted here that they should be excluded from this ostensibly morally worthy endeavor. Conversely, there also arises a demand that so-called welfare mothers work, though work is originally a punishment for Adam, while Eve’s concomitant curse is the pain of childbirth. (The writer of 1 Timothy echoes this provision, saying that it’s through childbirth women are justified.) It is hard to derive from the Bible a general prescription that all persons work because work is an intrinsic good; it is even harder to derive the view that only some persons (not, for instance, the children and elderly) work because work is an intrinsic good for some and not others.

It must also be noted that, as hinted at above, if the issue is, say, sloth or isolation, why labor market work (a relatively modern condition for most people) is the type of work we should assign to everyone. Women who care for their children are doing work: if you doubt it, see what happens when they enter the labor market — they end up paying someone else to do what they were doing previously. Since the very first community is between mother and child, and because Christian tradition places such emphasis on the moral good of motherhood, it’s difficult for me to discern why, exactly, labor market work is herein being valued above mothering; likewise, I can’t understand from a Christian perspective what the point of marriage is in a framework that values labor market work over raising one’s own children, as the bringing forth and raising of children has traditionally been understood to be the point of marriage. If both bearing children and marrying are therefore good only insofar as they submit themselves to labor market work — well, I can barely identify anything Christian in that: it seems rather like a baptized capitalism.

Thus it’s hard for me to work out the Christian ethical obligation to inflict poverty upon those of us who don’t work, in an effort to force them to work.

It seems rather to me that Christianity offers the best guidance when it is allowed to guide in full. When it comes to teaching virtues, it’s best to temper those lessons with love and mercy, as Jesus does, rather than to morph them into punitive measures that put some at a conspicuous benefit over others. Augustine is quick to observe in City of God that one can’t inculcate goodness into others, even when a rule or punishment can produce a behavior that appears, superficially, the same as that motivated by actual goodness. One can teach — and by all means, the state should fulfill its pedagogical role here — but teaching is only one duty, and for states the duty to maintain some equitable order toward flourishing is just as pressing, and, I hope I’ve demonstrated, simply and safely done.

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