All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1987

Poverty: Material and Spiritual


The Reverend Irving E. Howard, retired Congregational minister and Professor of Finance Emeritus, Nichols College, Dudley, Massachusetts, was formerly Associate Editor of Christian Economics.

Poverty is relative. What we describe as poverty in the United States would be wealth in most any other country. The relative nature of poverty is illustrated by the so-called official “poverty line.” The higher the average income, the higher climbs the poverty line, which for a family of four is now approximately $11,000 per year. Keep on changing the definition of poverty and there will always be a segment of society below the officially designated level.

There are many factors that make the accuracy of this “poverty line” suspect. For example: If such government handouts as food stamps, fuel assistance, low cost housing, and the like were added to the income of those below the poverty line, many would be well above it.

Some people are genuinely poor, lacking the means to provide what most of us would agree are the necessities of life. This is statistical poverty and it may be caused by illness, accidents, disabilities of various kinds, drags, alcohol, or whatever. But these are minor causes, compared to the statistical poverty resulting from the welfare state’s interventions to redis-tribute, regulate, and control.

The minimum wage law, for example, sounded innocent enough when first proposed. But many people now recognize that the minimum wage creates poverty because it causes unemployment, especially among unskilled teenagers and blacks.

We see the effects of the minimum wage all around us. For example, there were many small sawmills in Appalachia when the minimum wage law was first adopted. Many of these had to close their doors because they could not afford to pay the minimum wage. Each succeeding increase in the minimum wage caused more marginal businesses to fail, disemploying workers and increasing poverty in the region. In addition to causing many businesses to close, the minimum wage law has caused many firms to cut back, new businesses not to be launched, and businesses not to expand.

A few years ago a Vermont ski wear manufacturer was buying hand-knitted goods from local housewives. It was a convenient home in dustry for housewives who preferred to work at home, but the Labor Department brought suit against the company for violating the minimum wage law. So home knitters were disemployed, their income cut off.

The minimum wage law is only one example of government intervention. Each intervention harms some people and seems to justify further interventions to correct the injuries caused by earlier interventions. The end result is a socialized society, and the record shows that socialism impoverishes any society which adopts it.

Take the case of Cuba. Cuba was the most prosperous country in the Caribbean region before Castro took over. Now, as a communist state, it is a poorhouse. Without assistance from the Soviet Union, Cuba would be suffering famine.

Capitalistic Rhodesia used to export food, but now, as the communist state of Zimbabwe, it must import food. Unemployed Zimbabweans have been fleeing to the relatively free economy of South Africa, where they have found employment and are sending their wages back to their families in Zimbabwe. Since the United States has imposed sanctions on South Africa, that solution is disappearing.

Mozambique was once a prosperous nation under Portuguese role, but now as a communist state it is also in a famine condition. Like Zimbabwe, its unemployed have been migrating to South Africa to earn wages to send back to Mozambique.

Sweden, long hailed as “the middle way,” is no exception to this trend of socialist decline. Sweden has now used up the fat she accumulated by being neutral during two world wars and is experiencing serious economic problems, rising unemployment, and a high suicide rate.

The Socialist Solution

The socialist solution to poverty is to redis-tribute the wealth capitalism has created. Taking from those who have and giving to those who have less sounds charitable, but it makes the problem worse by destroying the incentive to create new wealth. Welfare state measures cause poverty! Wealth is not static; it is dynamic and in a condition of continuous creation. Capitalism—the free economy—is productive; it is the only way to bring about prosperity.

There is a need in capitalism for voluntary charity. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Let him that stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may give to him that needeth.” (Eph. 4:28) But before we can practice charity there must be production, else there will be nothing to give. Milton Friedman has echoed the spirit, if not the letter, of St. Paul, by suggesting that there should be an Eleventh Commandment: “Let he who practices charity do it with his own money.”

There is no good word to be said for statistical poverty, especially when we bring it on by our own misguided policies; but spiritual poverty is worse, i mean the loss of meaning and purpose in life, the loss of faith and hope.

The nineteenth century was the age of mechanistic materialism. This world view encouraged the theory of Marx that men and women are social atoms whose lives need to be engineered by planners who know what is best.

The Declaration of Independence concluded with a great phrase that reveals a generation of leaders with a very different faith: “. . . with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The fact that their lives and fortunes were at stake proves these were not empty words.

Fortunately, there are many Americans today whose “firm reliance” is on “Divine Providence.” But that has not been the faith of those who have led us down a socialistic path in government and a humanistic path in education and religion.

When the New Deal was in its heyday, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick in one of his radio ad dresses raised a question regarding its welfare measures: “What if this destroys the American character? What then?” The question was not answered. The American character has not been destroyed, but it has been impaired.

Before the 1930s, the American was buoyant and ever the optimist. Optimists still exist, but a change has taken place. Fear of the future has laid a cold hand upon us. This shows up in our declining rate of saving. We were once noted for our saving rate; now our rate is exceeded by almost all industrialized nations, especially Japan which is poor in natural resources, but leads the world in her rate of saving. Why save if the future seems so uncertain? So instead of saving we gamble and hope to strike it rich. Even states and towns now finance themselves with lotteries.

Some would like to blame this uncertainty about the future on the atomic bomb, but it began before there was a bomb. Public school teachers frighten young people with horror stories of a nuclear holocaust and then lament that young people are afraid of the future. This fear of the future began when the materialist view that life is meaningless seeped into the American consciousness. The increase in suicides, especially among teenagers, is evidence that such persons have lost this ground for hope. It is evidence of spiritual poverty.

Without that “firm reliance upon Divine Providence” men and women become more and more dependent upon someone or something else. They turn to government instead of looking to their own resources. In the welfare system they become wards of the state clam-oring for “rights” which do not exist. Or they become dependent on narcotics, alcohol, or drugs.

We are spending billions of dollars trying to control the drug problem and when we tell a foreign nation to stop selling us drugs, the response is that we should stop demanding drugs! This is a reasonable reply. Drugs are not a problem the police can solve. It is a moral and spiritual problem—a symptom of our spiritual poverty.

Is There a Cure?

How can we cure this spiritual poverty? We used to look to the churches and the schools to inculcate faith in God and a belief in moral values when the home did not do it. Today we cannot count on either institution.

The New York Times recently reported on a New Jersey high school class of 15 who were asked what they thought of a girl who found $1000 and turned it in. All 15 said she was a fool! The counselor gave no opinion on the grounds that counselors should not teach moral values. The counselor was only following the policy of modern secular education—that it must be “value free.”

Not many years ago moral precepts were printed on classroom blackboards and students were given pieces to memorize which taught moral values, but not in the public schools of today—except in some rural areas or in strongly religious communities.

Many forces today are eating away at the institution of the family. Fewer and fewer families are “traditional” units with the father working and the mother at home with the children. Inflation has forced many wives to enter the work place, leaving the children during the day with no parent at home. Worst of all, however, is the destruction of the moral values which once held families together. Statistical poverty will not destroy a family unless there is also spiritual poverty.

Statistical poverty is a problem for which there is a solution: Less government intervention and more capitalism to create wealth. Spiritual poverty is much more difficult to remedy. It is pathological, rooted in a loss of faith in the purpose and meaning of life itself.

We do not need a government which thinks it knows what is best for us, and so turns citizens into wards of the state. We do not need a court system that launches into an uncharted sea of positivistic jurisprudence. We do not need a school system committed to “value free” education, leaving moral instruction to the home, which in many cases no longer exists as a viable institution: We do not need churches concentrating upon the material demands of man while ignoring his spiritual needs.

If we wish to survive as a nation, we must demand a government that protects life, liberty, and property and leaves law-abiding citizens alone to make their own way. We must demand courts and judges who decide the constitutionality of law in the light of legal precedent, leaving the business of lawmaking to legislatures. We must have independent schools where students study our heritage, and are given genuine heroes to emulate. And the laity must demand that churches proclaim faith in God, and inspire the hope which this faith alone provides.