The Bible and the Poverty Problem
by Matthew W. Bassford
In 2003, social scientists Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins noticed three striking differences between poor people in America and the nonpoor. First, poor people generally hadn’t completed high school; the nonpoor had. Second, nonpoor people kept a steady job; poor people didn’t. Third, nonpoor people got married before having children; poor people had children before getting married. ["Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare"].
From their data, Sawhill and Haskins concluded that young Americans who 1) finished high school, 2) got a job, and 3) got married before having children had only a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty. Since that time, conservatives as varied as Ben Sasse and Ben Shapiro have adopted this solution as their own.
However, the single most elegant means of promoting this program isn’t found in a report from a Washington think-tank or a political candidate’s platform. Instead, it is found in Scripture. As Moses observes in Deuteronomy 10:13, the commandments of God are for our good. The godly path is the wise path, and it generally will lead to a more prosperous life.
Some might have trouble locating “Finish high school,” in the Bible. My father didn’t. If he quoted Ecclesiastes 9:10 to me about my schoolwork once, he quoted it a hundred times! He understood that discipline and hard work were essential not only to education but everywhere in life.
The others are more obvious. I Timothy 5:8 was very much on my mind when I refused to marry my wife until I found a job (much to her annoyance, actually). I was not about to establish a household until I could provide for it. Sure, I was providing for it at the rate of $23,500 a year (in 2005), but that was a whole lot better than providing for it at the rate of zero!
Similarly, all Christians are aware of Hebrews 13:4. Young disciples who honor the marriage bed and shun sexual immorality because of the obvious spiritual dangers will consequently also avoid the less obvious economic dangers. Single motherhood is usually a one-way ticket to poverty (and a lot of other problems besides), but the great majority of women who don’t sin sexually don’t end up as single mothers. If the Christian husband will remain committed to his wife, that percentage goes up to about 99.9 percent.
God’s way works. It doesn’t work because He upends bags of money on you when you pray for riches, Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar to the contrary. It works because the Biblical values of self-discipline, hard work, and sexual continence are economically useful values. Nearly always, people who practice these things will rise.
What’s more, you don’t have to have read the sociological studies and thought deeply about the long-term consequences of your actions to benefit. God has already done the thinking for you. Obey Him, and it will be well with you.
Of course, all of the above is “nearly always.” Just as there are exceptions to nearly every proverb in the book of Proverbs, there are exceptions to this. There are godly people who find themselves in poverty through circumstances beyond their control, serious health problems being the chief of these. However, those things are the exception, not the rule, and we should not ignore the rule because of the exceptions.
Sadly, the same forces that have struck at religion in America also have attacked this simple engine for prosperity. The more people deviate from God’s plan for work and the family, the worse they fare economically too. The dimensions of this national disaster are becoming clearer with every passing year.
The most potent cure for the disease isn’t found in Washington but in the word. If people devote themselves to the teachings of Christ, the problem of poverty will, if not disappear, at least greatly diminish. Those who refuse to do so have no one to blame but themselves.