Throwing Out the Poor with the Bath Water
The old expression “throwing the baby out with the bath water” refers to getting rid of something good or fundamental in the process of trying to get rid of something bad. Perhaps the saying does not apply perfectly to the plight of the poor at present, but it addresses one significant aspect of it.
On a public policy level, helping the poor, like other important issues, has fallen victim to the partisan divide that makes meaningful dialogue among our political leaders virtually impossible. Liberal policies have proven ineffective in alleviating poverty at best, and counterproductive at worst. Conservative alternatives suggest that improving the overall economy will solve the problem of poverty for anyone willing to work. Such an approach both ignores the truth about who are the major beneficiaries of an improved economy and suffers from a shortsighted view of the nature and causes of poverty.
Difficult economic times make government aid programs inviting targets for cost cutting. While many of these programs contain serious flaws, simply reducing or eliminating them carries devastating consequences for many of our poorer neighbors, at least in the short term. The many Christians who support such cost cutting must not take the consequent impact on the poor lightly.
One could certainly argue that any attempt to alleviate poverty through government programs will inevitably come up short for a variety of reasons. The magnitude of the problem in a country like the U.S., however, not to mention the worldwide situation, requires the mobilization of vast resources. At least at present, government involvement in assisting the poor remains vital, even with its shortcomings.
To throw out the poor with the bath water of flawed public policies will surely not escape the notice of the God who promises to hear the cries of the poor. Christians who try to hide behind the abuses of those who play the system because “those who don’t work shouldn’t eat” need to remember at least two things. First, “the system” bears a great deal of responsibility for the current problem. Second, attempts to toss out the cheaters will literally toss out babies and children as well.
In the longer term, my hope is that the church will build on growing insights into healthier ways to help the poor and model a better way forward. I personally have little confidence in government’s ability to do more than minimize some of the consequences of poverty. Churches and Christian organizations have frequently done little better in addressing the root causes of poverty. Increasingly, however, this situation is changing. A tremendous opportunity thus exists for the church to bear witness to the kind of redemption God intends as it walks alongside its poorer neighbors day after day and year after year.
In the meantime, we may have little choice but to: 1)Advocate for the best of the flawed government policy options for the poor; and 2)Step up efforts to address the deeper issues of poverty and combat the counterproductive effects of shortsighted programs.