Was the War on Poverty Too Ambitious?

Can the War on Poverty be won in America? That depends on how you define what victory looks like. If you are the eternal optimist who presumes that somehow our government, or the free-market, or church and private organizations will eliminate poverty during our lifetime and one day relegate it to a history museum, then you may be sorely disappointed. That does not mean that we should wave the white flag and surrender the fight against poverty. Nevertheless, we need to step back and gain a wide-angle view of the interwoven web of multiple moral, social, and economic issues that perpetuate poverty.

Poverty is a much more complex enemy than “pundits” compel us to believe. It is much more than “a lack of money, period” as left-wing social commentators Cornel West and Tavis Smily have passionately declared in their poverty manifesto. And it is so much more than a series of bad choices and habits by the poor, as Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey recently insinuated in his article, “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” Such sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions do not paint a realistic portrait of 21st century poverty in America, but rather reinforce the tired old stereotypes within political debates between the left and right that dominate traditional and social media.

Nonetheless, my purpose for writing this post is not to explore in detail each cause of poverty, but rather bring to light the multiplicity of poverty—to bring us back to the question: Was the War on Poverty too ambitious and too optimistic? Did our progressive elders put all of their social-change eggs in the government basket, believing that large-scale interventions totaling trillions of dollars could, for instance, prevent or counter the colossal phenomenon of the breakdown of the traditional family, a major contributor to poverty?

Studies show when fathers are no longer present in the home, the number of children growing up in poverty increases as a result. But that’s not all. Without a father, more teenagers end up dropping out of school, more teenage girls get pregnant, and more teen boys get locked up—all of which lead to even more poverty! All the money in the world cannot fix the broken relationships that correspond with the disintegration of the family.

Ironically many of my progressive friends and fellow poverty-fighters, especially those who are post-modern, post-9/11, post-baby boom, post-industrial, post-Christian, and post-war, seem to give a free pass to the high-modernist ideology that assumes the all-encompassing proficiency of the state to harness all of its available power, redistribute financial resources and create a plethora of social programs that will result in the eradication of poverty. The past century is littered with the unintended consequences of failed schemes from ambitious governments (including our own) who presumed that their central planning, knowledge, technology, and ideology could create a grand utopian society.

But then again, as a Bible-believing Christian, I am confronted with a certain verse in Scripture that seems to advocate the ideal of poverty-eradication: “there need be no poor among you” (Duet 15:4).

Applying the Bible to America’s War on Poverty

“There need be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4). God gave ancient Israel this ideal goal in addressing the problem of poverty. At first glance it might seem as if God expected his people to eventually make poverty history through their faithful obedience. But a few verses later, there lies a transition from the future ideal to the present reality.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.(NIV84, Deut.15:7)

Later, in the same passage, we find an even greater assertion:

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. (Deut. 15:11)

Interestingly, within the tiny theocratic state of ancient Israel where its leaders could levy control through the several hundreds of rules and regulations from the Mosaic law, there remained a realism that poverty was never going to be eliminated. Rather, the realism that saw poverty would always exist became the occasion for the people of Israel to embrace a generous lifestyle towards the poor and needy.

The question arises, how do these scriptures apply to us today? Especially since these commands were given to ancient Israel—a theocratic state, whereas America is completely different, as a republic of represented democracy. Therefore, it would be wise to heed biblical scholar Craig Blomberg’s reminder in Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions:

The closer the situation in any given portion of our contemporary world corresponds to the features—in this case the socio-economic features—of the world behind any given biblical instruction, the more straightforward one can transfer the principles of those texts in our modern age. The less the correspondence, the higher one has to move up the ‘ladder of abstraction’, to look for broader principles that may transcend the uniqueness of specific situations. (IVP Academic, 2000. 30)

Sadly, many Christians and non-Christians alike do the exact opposite. Instead of looking for broader principles, they twist the Bible to reinforce their personal, social, and political agendas and narrow their interpretation of Bible verses on the issue of poverty.

If I had a dollar for every conservative Christian that I’ve heard carelessly exploit Jesus’ comment “that the poor you will have always” (which is a paraphrase from Deut. 15:11) to justify their lack of compassion and responsibility towards the poor, I’d have enough money to buy a iPad. Ironically, these Christians seem to have more in common with “the survival of the fittest” mentality of social Darwinists than with Jesus.

At the same time, I’ve seen several progressives project their liberal ideology onto the Bible, believing, for instance, that the Sheep and the Goats parable describing the last judgement (Matt. 25:31-46) is an indictment against conservatives because they don’t embrace a large-scale government-intervention strategy to help the poor. These progressives fail to acknowledge that many conservatives—in their involvement and sacrificial giving through churches and non-profits—are actually compassionate people towards the poor and needy, but don’t possess the faith in government that many progressives do to make things better for the poor.

Since the poor and oppressed will always be among us, God’s people must always remain generous and compassionate people towards the poor and oppressed. That is the broader principle from Deuteronomy 15. It should not surprise us, especially since our world is fallen and that we worship a God who has a special concern for the poor.

So maybe we should change our poverty language from “eradication” and “making poverty history” to “alleviation” and “reduction.” Alleviating and reducing poverty is a much more realistic goal because it takes account of the complex, multi-faceted nature of poverty that comes from the truth that we live in a fallen, sin-filled world, a world that will never experience the complete utopian society that we all yearn for until Jesus comes back to this earth, cleanses it of all injustice and unrighteousness, and sets everything right as a new earth (Rev. 21).

In the meantime, as a follower of Jesus, I am to proclaim the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15), and love God and love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:25-37). Part of that task is to understand and live out what it means to care about justice for the poor (Prov. 29:7).

Joel Shaffer bio

Joel Shaffer is founder and Executive Director of Urban Transformation Ministries (UTM) and an elder at New City Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Joel received his undergraduate degree from Michigan’s Cornerstone University. He completed his Masters in Intercultural studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. 

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Aaron Blumer's picture


My view is that the War on Poverty was off on both goals and means. Eliminating relative poverty in the US would not be possible without forcing the same income and property on everyone--arguably, it would no longer be "the US" at that point. Eliminating essential poverty: lack of basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing--we are just about there, but would have gotten there even faster without the WoP programs. This is because the means conceived by progressives were self-defeating to begin with. Rather than intensifying the labor-reward dynamic, they further insulated people from it. This can only slow progress in real thriving.

Weekly Standard has an interesting article marking the 50th anniv. of the War on Poverty--and some tragic unintended consequences.

This one is insightful, too: The Great Society at Fifty

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Jim's picture

The war on poverty basically made the majority of the black race (don't like the term) dependent upon the government. Google "War on Poverty African American" for more insightful commentary on this. 

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