How should we think about welfare, social mobility and poverty relief? The UCCF Politics Network hears from a Parliamentary Researcher and former think tank researcher on how the Bible informs their approach to these issues. This piece is an adaptation of materially originally heard at Civitas during the Autumn Term 2021.
At every election, the major political parties either vehemently defend the current welfare system or vow to reform/scrap it as soon as possible. But how should a Biblical worldview impact the way we approach the whole issue of welfare, poverty relief, and social mobility?
We have a clear direction Biblically to ‘defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow’ (Isaiah 1:17) and to not harden our hearts or shut our hands against our poor brothers (Deuteronomy 15:7). While most Christians would agree on the clarity of those imperatives, the disagreements come on how we achieve this aim.
Much of the welfare discourse in the New Testament is localised and often focused on welfare support within the church. In Acts 2:44-45, we see the early church sharing all things in common to support those in need who were part of the group of believers who met daily. Similarly, Paul directs Timothy that it is the responsibility of Christians to provide for their relatives calling those who fail to do so ‘worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Timothy 5:8).
Those who could work were commanded to with the stark commandment, ‘if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10). We also have instructions to give cheerfully and ‘not under compulsion’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).
As an aside, careful Bible readers should ensure they understand the audience of these commands and ask themselves if the directions apply to the church context only or if they can also be applied to a nation-state. These entities cannot necessarily be conflated and a correct Biblical interpretation will explore the context of the original audience and think critically about the right interpretation.
In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Martin Olasky lays out seven principles he believes should underpin welfare policy from a Biblical perspective. A common thread between them is the idea of a meaningful, discerning relationship between the recipient and the giver. He gives an illuminating example. While giving a shiny new toy truck to a child of a young on-the-bread-line mother may seem generous it may make the lovingly home-made gift of the mother appear pitiful in comparison. Much of the current welfare system is so distantly removed – so systematised – that dependency is fostered and those struggling are infantilised rather than empowered. Keeping short connections between the source and recipient helps to mitigate this.
Historically the church was the source of much of the poverty relief funding hospitals, hospices, schools, and emergency aid. Often first for its own members, as discussed, but then overflowing to those around in need. As the church has relinquished this role, the state has grown to fill the gap and the personal connections that were so key to successful social mobility were weakened.
In a similar vein, welfare policy should acknowledge the relational dimension to poverty. As Westerners, we tend to think only of material solutions to poverty as we tend towards materialism. In reality, relational breakdown is a leading cause of why people end up and stay in poverty. The experience of family breakdown as a child doubles your chances of failing at school or getting into trouble with the police and more than doubles your chances of becoming homeless. In fact, in the case of homelessness, experience of family breakdown is a greater risk factor than mental health problems or even drug addiction. All these are serious contributing factors to poverty. Lack of social capital and opportunities can be as debilitating as material poverty and of course are often intertwined.
In closing, Biblical discourse around social mobility and poverty relief should keep in mind the pattern set by our Saviour – especially as stated in Philippians 2. Here we see Jesus, enjoying equality with the Father and yet willingly choosing to leave this, humble himself, be obedient, and be killed on a cross. Here we have a vivid picture of a downwardly mobile Saviour.
While we strive to advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the fatherless and the widow, we do this as a response to the fact we have first been liberated, fathered, and husbanded. We must always keep in mind that as we seek to empower others, we do this because we have first been justified, exalted, and dignified by the grace of the gospel.