The Proper Attitude Toward Poverty
While wealth, properly viewed and handled as a necessary occasion of sin, can be reconciled to the common good, poverty cannot, and therefore it ought to be minimized even if it cannot be eliminated, being one of the ever-present consequences of sin. “The poor you will always have with you,” said Christ—but this should never be construed as the “normalization” of poverty, especially since the statement refers to the preciousness of Christ’s presence, and not about the tolerability of suffering. What, then, is the appropriate attitude of the Christian toward the issue of poverty?
a. Both the individual and the State have roles to play
First and foremost we need to put behind us the most typical objection to public action on the part of the poor, which says that the public authority ought to leave such things to “private charity,” on the assumption that the State has no legitimate interest in the problem—a patently absurd notion, to be sure, but common nonetheless. To this the United States bishops have answered rightly that:
“The responsibility for alleviating the plight of the poor falls upon all members of society. As individuals, all citizens have a duty to assist the poor through acts of charity and personal commitment. But private charity and voluntary action are not sufficient. We also carry out our moral responsibility to assist and empower the poor by working collectively through government to establish just and effective public policies.”
b. Against stigmatizing the poor with stereotypes
Next we must also fight the often vindictive attitude directed toward the poor, as if they were a class to be openly chastised. It would not be difficult to cite numerous passages of scripture that respect, rather than resent, the poor for their poverty—that show pity rather than patronization and condescension. In fact we get the impression from any survey of Christian teaching that the traditional sentiment was precisely the opposite of today: in the past it was the poverty which carried signs of holiness along with it, and which seemed to symbolize, even if it did not realize in the individual, the life of Christ.
Now, judging by the words and actions of a significant number of individuals, it seems that to be poor is to be automatically guilty of vice, and, as a natural correlative, it is the wealthiest in society who are automatically considered virtuous, and this in proportion to the amount of wealth they accumulate. It is necessary, then, to do away with a few of the common stereotypes that have grown up alongside this reversal of esteem in the Christian attitude toward poverty.
c. Poverty does not imply laziness or disdain for work
It is often insinuated that those on government programs are there as a means of avoiding work, and that these same persons stay on welfare for years even though they could work if they wished. Statistically, none of these assumptions are justified. Many welfare recipients are mothers who must, or have laudably chosen to, remain home to raise their children. Many are elderly. Others are children. Yet mothers are attacked and it is implied that they must have given birth for no other reason than to maintain eligibility for government hand-outs—as if any clear-thinking person would not realize that it would be much easier to work a conventional job than it is to raise children at home. Moreover, research has shown that the poor show the same desire to work as any other social class. We ought to plead with the American bishops against these misguided opinions:
“We ask everyone to refrain from actions, words or attitudes that stigmatize the poor, that exaggerate the benefits received by the poor, and that inflate the amount of fraud in welfare payments. These are symptoms of a punitive attitude toward the poor.”
The bishops have duly noted the hypocrisy in this attitude by observing that the most substantial subsidies “handed out” by the government go, not to the lower class, but to individuals and corporations who are by no means in poverty. Yet criticism directed at hand-outs to the already-rich is hardly ever mentioned. Through this selective outrage it becomes obvious that the aforementioned opinions do not stem from any real knowledge of foul play on the part of the poor, but rather from negative attitudes—especially fear—in the hearts of those who do not belong to the lowly class.
d. “Hunger is a great motivator.”
We have all heard it suggested, either on the radio or by some person on the street, that it is good for the poor and the unemployed to be under threat of hunger or some other tribulation. This is because, we are told, the threat of suffering is what motivates these slothful creatures to engage in productive labor, and if this threat were removed then the problem of poverty would only become worse. But again, common experience and reflection show clearly that this attitude is false. Very few people limit their productive labor to those hours for which they are remunerated. Most men, when arriving home from “work,” simply transition to work on some other project. As was said above, the healthy individual strives to work. Those who would claim that “hunger is a great motivator” would rarely admit that they need this motivation themselves. What’s worse, the saying implies that poverty is a problem of motivation, and through this implication it allows the speaker to avoid altogether the moral demands which the problem of poverty makes on him and his society. It is an escape from responsibility to the poor by absurdly presenting poverty itself as the best cure for poverty.
e. “He who will not work, neither shall he eat.”
It has been said that the devil himself is happy to quote the Scriptures, so long as he can quote it to suit his own purposes. This seems to be the only explanation for the immense popularity of Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians: “He who will not work, neither shall he eat.”
All that need be said of this matter is that there are countless Scriptures which instruct us on the attitude we are to have toward the poor, and this is not one of them. In fact, when taken in context, it has nothing at all to do with the poor. Paul is speaking to men who quite obviously are in no danger of starvation. Therefore, while his warning certainly speaks against sloth, it would be a malicious error to treat all Scriptures against sloth as if they pertained directly to the poor, as if the poor are the only beings capable of committing this sin.
 Mt 26:11.
 2 Thess 3:10.