Do the Poor Cause Their Own Poverty?
Poverty is endemic to capitalism. This is completely logical, since under the straightforward rules of capitalism, the only people who get any income are people who work and people who own, and about half of people in society do not work at any given time, mostly because of life circumstance (children, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed) or because of other commitments to their time like attending school or caring for family members. But many people think this cannot be the reason why there is so much poverty — the reason, they propose, must come down to the behavior of the poor. Many Christians have even told me that to say otherwise is to deny that personal responsibility matters at all. This is especially true when the subject of discussion is the glaring racial inequality of poverty in the United States. Christians blame factors like single motherhood for the high levels of poverty we see in the US and particularly for racial disparities in poverty. But this blame is completely misplaced. Both logic and the empirical evidence tells us to reject this narrative.
First, by simple logic, we can say that behavior cannot be the beginning and end of our explanation of poverty. We can ask, for example, whether drug use or single parenthood is either a necessary or sufficient condition to put someone into poverty. It is not a necessary condition, since plenty of people are in poverty who are not in single parent households. It’s also not a sufficient condition, since plenty of single parent households are not poor. This applies to every behavior people say causes poverty: drug use and low education are neither necessary nor sufficient for causing poverty.
The objection may come that of course these behavioral factors simply make poverty more likely, and there are plenty of statistics to show that people with these behaviors are more likely to be poor than people without them. But this only reveals a greater problem: if the behaviors in and of themselves are not the cause of poverty but are simply indicators that someone is more likely to be poor, what is the additional factor causing the person to be poor? It is the distribution of income. Since poverty is measured in terms of income, this seems completely trivial, but it is not. Behavioral explanations of poverty have to assume that the way we distribute income in society is unchanging in order for their explanations to make sense. But the way we distribute income in our society is not natural or unchangeable. We could choose to distribute income such that not finishing high school did not mean you were more likely to be consigned to deprivation.
Logically, then, we can conclude that we need a better explanation for poverty than single parents and drug addictions. But the best recent poverty research underlines this as well. Traditionally, the biggest “poverty risk behaviors” emphasized by scholars have been unemployment, single motherhood, a young head of household, and a head of household who didn’t finish high school. None of these risk factors even come close to explaining all poverty in the United States, but single motherhood — the one many Christians focus on since they wish to promote marriage — only contributes a little bit to American poverty. According to researchers David Brady, Ryan Finnigan, and Sabine Hübgen, “if, magically, there were no single mothers in the United States, the poverty rate would still be 14.8 percent” compared to 16.1 percent according to their poverty measure — a decrease of just 1.3 percentage points. Even given the fact that the United States is one of the few rich democracies where being a single mother is a poverty risk at all, the amount of poverty reduced by eliminating single motherhood (an impossible achievement) would be very disappointing.
We in the church need a change in our poverty narrative. Each of us, no matter our material circumstance, needs the healing that can only come from knowing God in Christ, including freedom from abusive relationships and drug addictions. But poverty is not, nor should it be, a punishment for individual behavior. Poverty frequently visits the households of the morally good while many whose hearts are hardened to God rake in huge sums of money. The solution should not be to punish sinners with poverty, but to realize that before the Lord, we are all beggars — and that he has nevertheless commanded us to ensure no one is deprived of the means to meet our needs. It is required by nothing less than God’s image in every human being.