Is Private Charity Enough?
Many Christians argue that while of course it is critical for Christians to care for the needs of the poor, it is not the government’s job to do so, but individuals acting out of their own free will. From this, they argue for reductions in the welfare state and encourage local voluntary solutions that are specifically tailored to the individual. Churches and private charity are proposed as the primary “social safety net” for poverty alleviation in the United States. While it is certainly true that Christians should not by any means abandon their part in the direct care for the poor in the oppressed, I think this argument fails to adequately capture a robust Christian understanding of the church, the government, and care for the poor.
Christians are not simply required to help the poor and the oppressed: we are meant to live our lives in the church in proximity to one another. Churches and non-profit organizations do a lot of great work that greatly helps those who need it—I’ve worked for Christian organizations doing this work myself. However, the problem of poverty is a problem at the scale of an entire society and its economy, and even the incredible and beautiful work of churches and non-profits around the country have not been able to lift huge masses of people out of poverty. Certainly, the infrastructure of American charity is not prepared to lift a quarter of Americans out of poverty, the proportion who would be poor were there no government tax and transfer programs.
A further snag is the fact that the wealthy—who possess a huge proportion of the wealth and draw in a huge proportion of the income in the United States—actually give a lower proportion of their income to charity than middle and lower income Americans. When they do give, much less of their money goes to organizations that provide aid to the poor in favor of universities, museums, and other institutions that can recognize their magnanimity. This means those with the most resources give the least.
Similarly, if churches in particular are to address poverty, the structural factors of residential segregation by race and by neighborhood income also make things difficult: churches in poorer neighborhoods have more needs to meet but less money in the community to draw from to meet those needs, and are frequently in denominations, such as historically Black denominations, that are not as well resourced as many white denominations with more churches in wealthier neighborhoods. Those with the resources, as with charitable giving, are structurally separated from those with needs, putting poorer churches at the mercy of wealthier churches, who are frequently unaware of poorer churches' existence. Given the shameful history of exclusion from white churches that made Black denominations necessary in the first place, this dynamic becomes all the more troubling.
To entirely and fully rely on the good will of the rich for the very basic needs of the poor to be met is to live in the fantasy of a sinless world in which having great resources is not often accompanied by the selfish desire to keep it all to yourself—which, in practice, is what we observe overall. Even beyond this sinful desire, the structural reality of American society means that the resources often cannot go from where they need to come from to where they are needed most—charity does not allocate resources to where needs are absolutely the greatest, but to what causes those with money want to give to.
Some basic numbers can provide some context for the comparative scales of poverty and private charity. In 2018—a year with a 3.9% unemployment rate—let’s imagine there were no government distributive programs and the only money people had was the money they made in the market, by labor or capital ownership. In this circumstance, the “poverty gap”—essentially the amount of money it would take, if perfectly allocated, to bring everyone in poverty over the poverty line—was some $511.7 billion. That same year, all charitable giving in the US amounted to $427.7 billion. Had every single dollar of charitable giving been directly and perfectly allocated to those under the poverty line, over $80 billion of poverty would have remained.
For Christians who care about poverty, there has to be more than one-to-one private charitable interaction, as critical as that is. Advocating for robust universal welfare programs and better wages, however, will require Christians to increase, not decrease, their proximity to the suffering and materially deprived. These changes do not come automatically—they must be struggled for, and Christians struggle for them alongside our brothers and sisters in poverty even as we work to meet their immediate needs in the meantime. The work of creating an economy that ensures no image-bearing human goes without their basic needs met is not indifferent and impersonal but ought to be in itself, for Christians, a work of charity.