We all know there is a chasm dividing the vast majority of Americans from the very richest — and leaders across the political spectrum will admit that it’s a problem. What are distinct, of course, are the policies being drafted to bridge the divide.
Shortly after the election of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) presented “A Better Way,” touted as an anti-poverty plan. “Our welfare system is rigged to replace work, not encourage work,” says Ryan, and the only way to tackle such challenges is supposedly to “reward work.”
Ryan’s take on economic inequality is not new — all the steps taken by the Republicans to address poverty follow in the same vein.
And it’s clear that average Republicans today agree with the sentiment. According to 2017 survey data from Pew Research Center, most Republicans attribute the financial standing of person to hard work — or its lack thereof.
But where does this idea come from and would the policy proposals that follow help alleviate poverty?
In the 1960s, Melvin J. Lerner conducted a study that showed that when presented with an obvious injustice, we try to resolve it: We cure the patient, free the innocent man from jail, etc. However, when we are helpless to change things, rather than give up on our belief in the essential rightness of the universe, we begin to rationalize away the unfairness. So rather than believe the world to be random — or in the overwhelming idea that some people are victims of systemic injustice that perpetuate cycles of poverty — we lean on the trope that poor people are lazy or made bad choices.
One of the more unsettling things about the belief, however, is the fact that it entrenches poverty, sickness, and other evidently unfortunate states of being rather than help alleviate them. Another is that Republicans’ belief in this just world often finds its roots in Christianity.
According to a poll conducted by Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation last year, “Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.” Similarly, hard work and frugal lifestyles, which apparently lead to wealth creation, are viewed as spiritual acts.
From the Washington Post’s report, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler makes this belief explicit, saying, "There's a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures.”
Those who ascribe to this belief often point to 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” or to justify lack of action, Matthew 26:11: “The poor you will always have with you.”
There are, however, contrary views to be drawn from the teachings of Christianity.
“People, parties, and policies can certainly be influenced by Christian teaching. But, they can also just as easily misrepresent them through selective appropriation,” says Zac George, who teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church at Our Lady of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bangalore, India.
In an email exchange, George pointed to the Christian imperative to care for one’s neighbor, saying,
“the act of helping the neighbor is not just a command, but a participation in the Divine life (Mark 12:30, Mathew 25:31-46, Luke 10:29-37). This has been the consistent message of Christianity from the beginning, beginning in God's act of Creation, through Salvation history, through the kenotic sacrifice of his Son who died for our sins (Phil 2: 6-11), to the present moment. … Christian teaching is very clear about the source (John 3:27, James 1:17) of what is given and the responsibilities of the receiver of the gift (Mathew 25:14-20). If by the grace of God, one has been given gifts of time, talent and treasure, then they are given for the aid of the other, in love (Acts 2:42-45, Acts 4:34-37, Phil 2:3-4). To presume that one has gained these, solely by one’s own merit is tantamount to a denial of the source of the gifts and of its intrinsic requirements of responsibility towards one’s neighbor.”
It’s a perspective we see regularly echoed by Pope Francis and Catholics steeped in social teaching. We see it in campaigns like Sojourners’ own Matthew 25 Pledge, which commits to the passage exhorting Jesus followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, etc.
But Republicans’ basis for their “anti-poverty” policies also find roots outside of Christianity. In the public sphere where we are often told that rewards of hard work, talent, and innovative spirits are exemplified by billionaires. Yet, there exists evidence to prove that levels of inequality far exceed what can be justified by work, talent, and innovation.
In the paper tiled “Extreme Wealth is not Merited,” Didier Jacobs, Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam, found that, “Fifty percent of the world’s billionaire wealth is found to be non-meritocratic owing to either inheritance or a high presumption of cronyism.”
Further, these policies fail to address how the system is skewed to reward wealth and not work. As Thomas Piketty showed in his much-acclaimed book Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, capitalism is characterized by a high level of inequality because capitalists reinvest most of their wealth — and if the rate of interest is greater than the rate of growth in the economy (which is very likely), the ratio of their capital to national income would rise forever. What’s to be noted is that that wealth is income based largely on ownership of assets and not hard work.
Therefore, while it’s true that policies aimed at reducing inequality can be linked to hard work, it also remains true that policy makers who are aiming at rewarding work should ensure that they are not inadvertently rewarding only wealth.
"It is not just that some people are born with talent, a supportive environment, and access to opportunities, while others are not. And we should obviously not reduce welfare programs — the fact that poor people have low productivity is a reason to help them,” Jacobs said in response to questions on the efficacy of scaling back welfare programs.
In our hearts, we know that misfortune cannot always be attributed to personal failings. And by even suggesting that laziness may be the cause for poverty, we are rejecting chances of dealing with structures that are steadily increasing levels of inequality.
It’s apparent that the path to inequality is a chosen one. It would do well in the interest of humankind to choose otherwise.