#152 Giving to the Poor

"The Christian Economist" with logo and a closeup of a dollar bill in the background

#152 Giving to the Poor

The Government is populated by people who serve their own self-interest, by spending other people’s money.  Churches are populated by people who have committed to serve the interest of others, with their own money.


Should we give to the poor, or help the poor?  That interesting question was posed by one of you, who listens to the Christian Economist podcast.  


When Helping Hurts

The first answer comes from the book When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert.  I was pleased to meet Brian Fikkert at a meeting of the Christian Economic Forum.  Partly to thank him for his very good book, but also, to discover there IS a Christian Economist taller than me: I’m about 6-foot-4, and Brian is about 6-foot-7.  Oh, the other source is a very good series of videos hosted by Michael Mathison Miller at the Acton Institute, called Poverty Cure.  

I could state numerous scriptures, here are just a couple. Proverbs 29:7 reads, The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.   Matthew 25: 35: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  

There’s pretty good agreement that Christians are supposed to care for the poor. The question is, “How”? 


God’s Sovereignty &Man’s Responsibility

When I posed this question in my Dallas Baptist University class last week, I asked students for a better theological term to describe what I was talking about.  I didn’t get very good answers.  So I will use this title, given to Ginger and I in a Sunday School class some ten years ago.  God is Sovereign and can do whatever He wants.  If he wants to help the poor, he can do it via His miraculous power.  But, for some reason, He chooses to do his work through humans, which means it is man’s responsibility.    So, he puts poor people in front of us, and expects us to care for them.  When do we turn away from the poor and say “God will take care of them,” and when do we jump in and help because it’s man’s responsibility?


Too Much Freedom

OK, this one is difficult for me, because when Sergiy Saydometov and I wrote Biblical Economic Policy, the first of the Ten Commandments of Economics we found was People Should be Free.  And, as I have studied and learned more in the two years since we wrote the book, I have become even more convinced that the intersection of Christianity and Economics is freedom.

But, you can’t find any society where people are perfectly free.  I’m going to have more to say about this in a future podcast, where I will attempt to explain the term Expressive Individualism, from the best book I’ve read this year, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman. 

But for now, let’s accept that you can’t have a perfectly free society.  And that’s where a recent article in the Wall Street Journal comes in.  Titled ‘Housing First” Foments Homelessness in California, the article by Joe Lonsdale and Judge Glock explains how the state’s policies have ENCOURAGED homelessness.

More than 150,000 Californians are homeless on any given night.  Most of them live outside in streets and parks.  More than half the country’s unsheltered homeless are in the Golden state.  An academic study by criminologists Richard Berk and John MacDonald showed that violence and death among the homeless went DOWN when Los Angeles enforced anti-camping laws, then it went back UP when the laws were not enforced.  The homeless have been granted the freedom to harm themselves and others.  That’s too much freedom. 

Here’s the problem: In California, they are given government subsidized housing with no pre-qualifications: Like sobriety, drug treatment or psychiatric care.  That means, no matter how much you increase the supply, it will always be outsized by demand.  The article explains, Research shows these policies don’t work. A 2017 Journal of Housing Economics study found that cities must build about 10 new permanent subsidized homes to get even one person off the street. That’s because many such homes end up occupied by people who would have found a place to live anyway. Free homes are attractive, even to those who could conceivably afford to pay. California can’t build a million free homes for the homeless, especially when recent “affordable” housing in the state costs upward of $700,000 a unit to build.”

Okay, let’s do the math: That means it would cost $7 million to get one person off the street.  150,000 times $7 million is just over $1 trillion, just to solve the current problem.  The GDP of California is just over $3 trillion, while the state budget is just over $300 billion.  If my math is correct, it would take over three years of the entire California state budget, just to solve the current problem.  That’s not even considering the moral hazard that would increase the demand for free housing.


The Government Stole our Command

I find myself quoting my fellow Christian Economist Art Lindsley on this topic quite often.  In his book. Free Indeed, he writes, the government should punish evil but not do good.  The church should do good, but not punish evil.  

The church could solve this problem in a much more efficient manner than the government.  But why don’t they?  Well, one answer is: Church attendance is declining.  Second, the government stole our command.  

I have time for only one example today.  The very small Harbor Church in Ventura, CA was doing great work helping the homeless, until the police closed them down.  A staff member, who was once homeless himself, says he is disappointed because the church was helping both spiritually and physically.  Hmm, sounds like diversity and inclusion to me.  They had a daytime church called “Operation Grace,” which the church folks enjoyed.  Pastor Sam Gallucci explains, “We shifted from doing church only on Sunday, to doing church Monday to Saturday.”  Every week, up to 200 homeless participated in the church’s fellowship, prayer, worship music, pastoral counseling, sermons, communion and Bible studies.  As far as I can tell, the police closed down the mission at the Harbor, telling them they could only practice their religion on Sunday.  I know, that’s not a very clear answer, is it?  But the point is this: When the church tries to help, they are prevented from doing so by powerful authorities. 

For more evidence that the law doesn’t work, I will note that San Francisco voters approved a camping ban in 2016, but the city leaders are not enforcing it.  So much for those who say, “We need another law.”  Because, it was a judicial change in law that caused the problem.  A 1975 Supreme Court decision ruled that a state cannot confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves.  You’ve noticed a lot of wiggle words in that sentence that are not well-defined.  So, homeless people who have mental health and addiction problems cannot be forced into care that would improve their lives.  

And now a word from your Foreign Correspondent: Oh, that’s me.  I’ve been to 58 countries, and what I notice in Communist countries is that there are no homeless people.  The government has almost totally stolen the commandment from the church.  In those countries, there is almost no freedom.  When a homeless person is found by the authorities in an authoritarian country, they are forced into a care facility of some kind.  Recent US presidential administrations have given too much admiration to societies that have a very un-Christian view of freedom.  As in, they have no freedom.  There’s a balance between allowing people to have freedom, but ending that freedom when it poses danger to the homeless, and to those they encounter. 


You get the Behavior you Tolerate

Ginger and I use that phrase quite often.  It’s from the book Extreme Ownership by former Navy Seals, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.   In economics, we say it slightly differently, “You get what you reward.”  That’s why one of the seminal books in economics is titled Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises.  Many homeless people are rewarded by governmental programs: At the city, state and federal level.  Thus, they are encouraged to live on the street.  A high percentage of people are homeless by choice.  Referring to the Wall Street Journal article again, “Spending about ten minutes in a homeless population will convince you that mental illness and substance abuse are the root cause.” 

There is a cottage industry in helping the poor, among both for-profits and nonprofits.  This is what the video series Poverty Cure rails against.  And, as the supply of drugs increases because of a porous Southern border, the price of hallucinogens gets cheaper.  

So think about it: Governments at various levels reward people for living on the street, illegal drug prices are lowered, and we call it a problem?  I used to do some work as a consultant and one of our phrases was, “Your organization is perfectly designed to produce the outcome you’re experiencing.”  See, that’s the power of economics: We know that people respond to incentives.  As a society, we have put them in the wrong place.  

Tom Giovanneti at the Institute for Policy Innovation recently hosted former US Ambassador John Bolton in the Dallas area.  Ambassador Bolton clearly stated, “All government agencies have wasteful spending.”  Of course they do.  They are populated by people who serve their own self-interest, by spending other people’s money.  Churches in comparison, are populated by people who have committed to serve the interest of others, with their own money.  The church is called to serve the poor.