Helping the Poor

Seek justice, encourage the oppressed [or, “rebuke the oppressor”].  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

-          Isaiah 1:17

“He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well.  Is that not what it means to know me?  declares the Lord.”

-          Jeremiah 22:16

“There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

-          Deuteronomy 15:11

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

-          James 1:27

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen.  Leave them for the poor and the alien.  I am the Lord your God.”

-          Leviticus 19:9-10

“Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.  But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God….If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever… No widow may be put on the list of widows [supported by the church] unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, helping those in trouble, and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds….

If [anyone] who is a believer has widows in [their] family, [they] should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”

-          1 Timothy 5:3-10, 16

“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

-          2 Corinthians 9:7

“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” 

-          2 Thessalonians 3:10

“He who has been stealing must steal no longer but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”

-          Ephesians 4:28

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ….Each one should test his own actions.  Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.”

-          Galatians 6:3-5

Helping the poor is a topic that is discussed extensively throughout the scriptures, which provides evidence of God’s special concern for the poor.  However, this is also an area in which it is especially important to present a balanced view of the full teaching of scripture, in order to ensure that everyone (rich and poor alike) is treated fairly. 

In this connection, it is important to remember that all of the Biblical teachings on helping the poor (like all of the other moral teachings in the Bible) are intended to be understood in the context of either Jesus’s two commands (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself – Matthew 22:36-40), or the fuller statement of the same principles in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17.)  Both of these passages make it clear that love is the supreme virtue.  And since love is a personal decision, or an act of free will, a strong commitment to individual freedom is clearly implied in the idea that love is the supreme virtue.

Therefore, from a Biblical point of view, properly caring for the poor requires balancing the sometimes conflicting priorities of a) maintaining a strong commitment to individual freedom, while still b) maintaining an adequate “social safety net” that provides sufficient help for those in genuine need.  Ancient Israel’s primary financial provision for helping the poor, which required that each Israelite give a tenth of their earnings to provide for the needs of both religious and secular government, and that the poor receive one-third of that amount (Numbers 18:20-30; Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Deuteronomy 26:12-13), was intended to strike this kind of balance, by implementing a system of taxation that a) was not a heavy burden to the Israelites, and b) was fair and transparent, and yet c) provided sufficient help to those who were really in need.

This need to balance a strong commitment to individual freedom with sufficient help for the poor becomes even more evident when more of the Biblical passages on helping the poor are considered.  Although God makes a passionate appeal for us not to disregard the needs of the poor (in passages such as Isaiah 1:17,  Jeremiah 22:16, Deuteronomy 15:11. James 1:27, and many others), there are also many passages that make it clear that this is first and foremost an individual responsibility of conscience (or a moral responsibility), in which the government might or might not play a role.  Throughout the New Testament, helping the poor is almost always discussed within the context of the church, without much discussion either for or against a government role in helping the poor. 

Some passages that make it clear that helping the poor is primarily a responsibility of conscience include James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this…”)  and I Timothy 5:8 (“He who does not provide for his relatives…has denied the faith…”).   Since the government cannot prescribe codes of belief, the government should also be careful to limit its direct assistance to the poor to assisting in amounts, and in ways, that all can agree are necessary.  This becomes even clearer when 2 Corinthians 9:7 is also considered:  “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  In other words, the role of government compulsion in providing for the poor should be limited both in order to maintain our individual freedom to give as we choose, and also to avoid supplanting the important role God intends for private charity to play in this area.

There are also some other passages that provide some additional guidance regarding how assistance to the poor should be focused.  Specifically, assistance should be targeted to those who need it most (I Timothy 5:3-10), and should be temporary (at least for those who are able-bodied),[1] with the goal of eventually restoring independence (2 Thessalonians 3:10, Ephesians 4:28, Galatians 6:3-5).  To the broadest extent possible, these programs should also require some degree of self-help and/or community service in exchange for the assistance provided (Leviticus 19:9-10, I Timothy 5:10.)  Finally, the scriptures also make it clear that no program (whether government, private, or a combination of the two) will ever completely eliminate poverty (Deuteronomy 15:11; Matthew 26:11.)   Therefore, we need to have realistic expectations for whatever efforts we undertake.

I am sure that some liberal readers of this site will regard the limitations on compulsory assistance to the poor discussed here as a “cop out.”  However, I think a truthful reading of the scriptures indicates the opposite.  In other words, regarding assistance to the poor as primarily a responsibility of conscience allows God to hold us to a higher standard in this area than the government ever could.  If helping the poor is viewed as either predominantly or exclusively a responsibility of the government, then it becomes easier for the wealthy to say:  “I’ve paid my taxes, and that’s enough!”  But that is not the Biblical view.  It is impossible for the government to enforce a command to “be openhanded,” (Deuteronomy 15:11), which is primarily a matter of the heart and spirit, but this is not too difficult for God!  

Leviticus 19:9-10 (“…do not reap to the edges of your field…”) also has much more meaning if it is viewed as a spiritual command rather than a strictly literal one.  In a literal sense, these verses have very little application to our modern, high-tech society.  But in a broader, more spiritual sense (which must almost by definition be a matter of conscience), these verses can be taken to mean generosity and fairness in business dealings (especially where the poor are concerned), which obviously has very wide application.  So regarding helping the poor as primarily a responsibility of conscience rather than a responsibility of government simultaneously allows for both more individual freedom and more individual accountability in this area than a purely secular and coercive approach can provide.

There are also two additional principles for helping the poor effectively that are derived directly from the above verses:

  • From a Biblical perspective, the family should play a very important role in fighting poverty.  This means not only that we should all do our best to help our relatives (and especially our immediate family) in their hour of need, but also that we should all realize that our own life  choices can have important effects on our own (and our family’s) economic future.  One study from the Brookings Institution estimated that families who completed high school and married before having children, worked full-time, and had no more than two children, would have only a four percent chance of living in poverty (which is approximately three to four times lower than the actual poverty rate.)[2]  Therefore, our welfare programs need to be structured in a way that encourages parents to marry (or stay married), rather than unintentionally encouraging single parenthood as is often the case today.
  • As Ephesians 4:28 (“He who has been stealing must steal no longer but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need”) makes clear, it is not only an economic necessity, but a spiritual necessity as well, that as many people as possible should provide for themselves.  This is not only for the benefit of each individual (because there is a spiritual dignity that comes with being able to provide for oneself that cannot be experienced in any other way), but for the benefit of the community as well.  Several years ago, a good friend of mine (who was an elder in our church at the time), said in a completely non-political context “I want to be a giver, not a taker.”  Those words have impacted me deeply, both at the time and since, because they express my own thinking on what the essence of Biblical charity really is.  I want to go through the rest of my own life, always having the attitude of, “I want to be a giver, not a taker.”

So, to summarize all of the above Biblical teachings on helping the poor, I think Biblical charity should:

a)      be generous but not infinite,

b)      focus on helping those most in need;

c)   focus as much as possible on enabling those who are being helped to either maintain or resume a productive role in society, and

d) support and encourage a significant role for private charity in helping the poor (in addition to government programs.) . 

Considering in practical terms how we can best implement the above principles, I think there are basically three ways in which the government can best help the poor.  These are:

1)      Maintain a “social safety net” that is consistent with Biblical principles.

2)      Support and encourage the work of private charities (including faith-based charities)

3)      Support an overall set of policies (or “rules of the game”) in many different areas (such as taxation, healthcare, education, and environmental and other regulations) that maximize economic opportunity and individual freedom for ordinary citizens in all of these areas, while also considering the impact of each of these policies on our neediest citizens as an integral part of the policymaking process.

Each of these topics is discussed in more detail in the remainder of this section.

1)      Maintain a “Social Safety Net” That Is Consistent With Biblical Principles

As discussed in detail earlier in this section, the Bible strongly exhorts us not to forget the needs of the poor, and therefore we need to maintain a “social safety net” that is sufficient to provide for the disabled and others who are in genuine need.  However, at the same time we also need to make sure these programs are focused on the people who are most in need, and encourage either the maintenance of, or a return to, self-sufficiency in as many cases as possible, so that the “safety net” programs do not encourage long-term dependency or become an excessive burden to the taxpaying public.  From a Biblical point of view, an ongoing and active concern for the welfare of the poor needs to be balanced with a strong commitment to individual freedom.   

One important way of achieving this balance is to make sure that, in addition to focusing on those who are most in need, the “safety net” programs are as narrow in scope as possible, and are focused on providing for basic needs (such as food, shelter, and healthcare) in which there is a broad political consensus that some assistance to the poor is needed.    This is consistent with the overall Biblical principle of limited government.  As discussed in more detail in the Role of Government section of this site, the “power of the sword” (which in our modern context means military, police and other emergency response, and judicial powers) is the only power that the Bible specifically gives to the secular government.[3]

2)      Support and Encourage Private Charities, Including Faith-Based Charities

Based on my experience as a member of the Board for StreetLight Community Outreach Ministries, which provides a wide variety of assistance to the poor and homeless in Prince William County, VA,[4] I believe that one of the most efficient and effective ways for the government to assist the poor is through partnerships with faith-based charities, and other private charities. 

By combining government and private grants (as well as donations from individuals, local businesses, and many churches throughout our community) with the large number of volunteers our ministry can mobilize, StreetLight makes a very substantial difference in our community, on a relatively small budget, among those who need it most.  All of our services are provided regardless of faith.

StreetLight currently has five major programs: 

  • Pantry Service and Clothing Closet:  provides a wide variety of food items and clothing to the needy.  We strive to provide one week’s worth of groceries to every family who visits.  During 2015, we provided a total of over 13,000 bags of groceries to almost 1,000 households, including over 4,600 individuals.
  • Community Outreach Dinner:  Serves an average of 140 homeless individuals and families each week (every Wednesday night at 7 pm.)  Besides providing a wholesome meal, this dinner provides a much needed sense of community support for a population that tends to be isolated and alone.
  • Financial Assistance for Crisis Needs:  This program has two focuses:  a)  Preventing homelessness or alleviating suffering among low-income individuals/families by averting evictions or utility cut-offs, or providing assistance with prescription costs and other crisis needs, and b)  alleviating suffering among the homeless by providing assistance with their crisis needs.  During 2015, StreetLight provided assistance with crisis needs to 343 families and individuals.
  • Permanent Supported Housing and Supportive Services:  During 2015, StreetLight provided permanent supportive housing and supportive services for 16 adult men and 8 adult women.  We also have two additional supportive housing units.  Our housing programs follow a “housing first” approach to reducing homelessness, and are focused on the “chronically homeless,” and homeless adults without children.  Clients are assigned a case worker to help them set individual goals, monitor progress, connect with necessary community services and to achieve successful outcomes for their goals.  In addition, we have implemented a Job Readiness Program available to all clients.  Although our goal is to help our clients return to self-sufficiency as soon as possible, and in as many cases as possible, clients in our Permanent Supported Housing program may continue in this program for as long as needed, provided they are in compliance with program rules.
  • Emergency Shelter and Respite Care for Medically Fragile Men and Women:  This program provides emergency shelter for homeless adults being discharged from the hospital who are too sick to live on the streets.  During 2015, StreetLight provided emergency shelter and respite care for 4 medically fragile men and women.

In addition to these current programs, StreetLight is also currently in the process of raising funds to build our own homeless shelter, which we are referring to as a Center of Hope.  Our goal is to meet the needs of the homeless in a very holistic way, by providing permanent supportive housing with wrap around case management services for homeless adults and families who cannot get into existing shelters in our area, and integrating as many of the needed services as possible under one roof.  The services provided would include:

  • private efficiency apartments
  • wrap around case management services
  • a community center to provide meals/social events
  • life skills classes
  • budgeting classes
  • recovery programs
  • job readiness program/temp agency on site
  • nurses station on site
  • food pantry and clothing closet

All of our efforts are focused on assisting the poor and homeless in ways that are both holistic, and highly individualized and relational.   Even more importantly, we strive to provide a compassionate and caring environment, to offer dignity, acceptance, and Christ-like love, and to facilitate personal growth and spiritual renewal.  All of these are things that require a personal touch, and that government programs alone cannot provide.

3)      Support Policies that Maximize Individual Freedom and Economic Opportunity for Ordinary Citizens

Since the scope of the government’s direct assistance to the poor is necessarily limited by both economic considerations, and moral or and spiritual considerations, I believe that one of the most effective ways the government can assist the poor is to enact policies (or “rules of the game”) in many different areas (including taxation, healthcare, education, immigration and trade policies, and environmental and other regulatory policies) that maximize individual freedom and economic opportunity for ordinary citizens, and thus maximize the ability of each individual and/or family to provide for themselves. 

In all of these different areas of policy, I believe the key overall Biblical principle is to balance a strong commitment to individual freedom with an ongoing and active concern for the welfare of all of our citizens (and especially the neediest among us.)  How best to achieve this kind of balance, in many different areas of policy, is the focus of each of the topical pages on this site.

[1] 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says “”if a man will not work, he shall not eat,” has traditionally been understood to include an exception for the disabled.

[2] Brookings Institution Policy Brief #28, “Welfare Reform and Beyond,” September 2003.  I mention this not to pass judgment on those who may have already made some bad life choices, but to warn younger folks who are still in the process of making these decisions that their choices really do have consequences.  

[3] For a fuller discussion of the Biblical principles relating to the role of government, see the Role of Government section of this site.

[4] See StreetLight’s website at www.thestreetlight.org.  Also note that StreetLight is a member of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC # 89844.)

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