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How Best to Handle the Poor?

By Rev. Jack R. Van Ens on December 2, 2012
© Vail Daily

Our nation's birth ignited a fierce political firestorm. Its embers still flare today.

The incendiary debate features fiery opposing arguments. Some believe God helps those who help themselves, with Uncle Sam butting out. Others say government assistance is required to help the poor escape their plight.

Who's in synch with our founding fathers regarding help for the poor?

At the country's birth, our forefathers wove two bold strands into our national fabric that don't blend.

These divergent ways government deals with the poor are rooted in Alexander Hamilton's and Thomas Jefferson's clashing convictions. The former viewed society from the top-down, with government aid flowing to indigent citizens. The latter looked through bottom-up lens, with Uncle Sam's minimal help as citizens worked out of poverty.

Hamiltonian government implements and coordinates social policy. This allows Uncle Sam to moderate the haves' greed and corral the have-nots' envy. Serving as attache to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Hamilton naturally aligned a well-run government with the military's top-down ranks.

Historian Jon Milton Cooper Jr., in his biography “Woodrow Wilson,” observes, “Social betterment for him (Hamilton) was analogous to military service, an enterprise in which each citizen would sacrifice, and everyone would work together for the common good.”

Jefferson, in contrast, objected to Hamilton making Uncle Sam into “Big Brother” who restricts personal freedom and curtails individual risk-taking. He favored hard-working citizens who accomplished their goals.

Historian Cooper crisply sums up Jefferson's world view as “the belief in the importance of creating an environment in which people can freely use their energies in the pursuit of their own happiness.”

Those who view society from the bottom-up want less government. Those using a top-down perspective show confidence in government's ability and duty to heal social ills.

This tension also erupted at the first Christmas. Biblical readers encounter a forthright Mother Mary who challenges the Roman Empire. In the Magnificat, Mary magnifies Old Testament themes about how God uses lowly people to upset power mongers. She sings, “(God) has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53).

Jesus's birth in a smelly cattle's feedbox fleshes out Mary's protest song. Jesus, an itinerant preacher, gathered despised tax collectors and simple fishermen to follow him. “(He) will spend most of his time among society's lowlifes, delighting in the company provided by IRS auditors on the take, lifelong hookers, Samaritan adulterers, Roman thugs, outcast lepers and officers of the occupying Roman army,” described Calvin Seminary preacher Scott Hoezee. Jesus showed compassion on the indigent, while the powerful avoided them.

Today, a conservative congressional power bloc protects tax code perks to the super rich by diminishing government aid to the poor. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, exposes these tawdry tactics.

“Deficit hawks have learned they can shape the political landscape of our country with the tool of defunding,” judges Beckmann. “We are at a point now where Congress is threatening cuts in the programs that provide help and opportunity for poor people in our country — programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and tax credits for the working poor.

“Of course, all Americans can be enthusiastic about our government running a tight fiscal ship. But if the budget is to be balanced on the backs of our poor, innocent children will suffer, and the civility woven into the fabric of our society will be threatened.”

How should our nation best deal with the poor? Support government that sits back to allow personal initiative to bubble up, or support government that leads from the front, lifting those down on their luck?

Carol Simon Kamin of Brookline, Mass., grew up with Las Vegas gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who supported Mitt Romney's bid for president. They were reared in the same poor, Jewish immigrant Boston neighborhood. Ms. Kamin writes how she and Adelson differ on government's role in dealing with the poor.

Rather than sketch a political philosophy, she details what has happened in those areas of the country that follow Adelson's Jeffersonian, bottom-up diminished governmental aid to the poor.

“Mr. Adelson writes that one of the reasons he left the Democratic Party is that Republicans are now more generous contributors to charity than Democrats,” notes Ms. Kamin. “Yet many of those very states that vote Republican have the highest child poverty rates, the lowest education levels, the worst health outcomes and the greatest number of children living in distressed communities.”

“And many of those states that vote Democratic have the lowest child poverty rates, the highest education levels, the best access health care and the most kids growing up in communities with the resources to provide safe and thriving neighborhoods,” Ms. Kamin declares (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2012, p. A-20).

Ms. Kamin reminds us of another Jewish progressive — Mother Mary — who renounced the Roman government for backing off rather than lifting up the poor.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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