The Responsibility of Government Leaders to the Working Poor

Government is a calling to serve, to promote the general welfare and pursue the common good. Pope Francis said as much when he stated, “Politics is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.”  The responsibility of a government and its leaders to the people they have authority over is also a theme that is woven throughout Scripture.  The way we treat our children and elderly, struggling families, and veterans who have served our country reflects who we are as a nation.  This is why we as a country invest in programs that give struggling families a leg up when they need it.  Programs like SNAP (formally food stamps), Medicare and Medicaid, and the Low Income Child Tax Credit help parents keep food on the table and seniors get the medications they need when they fall on hard times.  

Attacks and Responses

Below are common attacks made on programs that help the working poor and how to respond.

Attack: Individuals and churches have a responsibility to care for the poor, not the government.
Response:  This is not an either/or proposition.  Both individuals and government leaders have a responsibility to the poor (be sure to see the Scripture passages below).  Jesus didn’t place qualifiers on how we are to love our neighbor, he simply commanded that we are to do so.  In Matthew 25 where he lists the criteria for how we will be judged the emphasis is on whether the least of these in our midst has food and drink, clothing and medical care or whether we leave them without.  Are we really fulfilling Jesus’ command to treat others as we would him if we’re denying food the hungry and clothes to the naked simply because we don’t think the means of distribution is ideal?

Government can take advantage of economies of scale that individuals and churches can’t and has greater resources to address structural challenges.  And the fact that there are over 47 million Americans making less than $11k a year, and 16 million children in struggling families, means there are a lot of people fighting just to stay afloat who could use a hand.  The House recently cut 10 million meals per day from the SNAP program.  Nearly 5 million of those were from children.  That’s more meals than what is provided by all the charities and churches in the country combined.  When programs to help low-income families are slashed, churches and charities simply can’t fill in all the holes created.

But say we buy the argument that Christians can do more; the simple fact is we haven’t.  There wouldn’t be Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes.  Is it really a Christian response to cut programs that are working before other options exist?  That’s like taking away a life vest from a drowning person and then saying someone should have taught him how to swim.

Attack: Government programs are inefficient, fraud is rampant, and people abuse the system.
Response:  We all know the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies and red tape – whether it’s the credit card company or a government office.  But the fact is, many programs to help the working poor are efficient.  99% of SNAP benefits go to their intended recipients, including mothers and their children, the elderly, and veterans, meaning only 1% misses its target.  1% isn’t as good as zero, but it’s pretty efficient.  Compared to private health insurance, Medicare has significantly lower administrative costs.  And according to Paul Ryan’s own Poverty Report, the Veterans Health Administration, which is the largest single-payer health system in the country is “effective in providing access to inexpensive health care for low-income veterans.”  The government needs to continue to improve efficiency and weed out fraud and abuse wherever possible, but so far their track record is pretty good.

Attack: Assistance programs keep people in poverty.
Response:  This is just factually wrong.  These programs are designed to giving people a helping hand when they’ve fallen on hard times and to provide a leg up out of poverty.  Again, according to Paul Ryan’s own report, programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit have kept millions of families striving to make ends meet from falling into poverty.  Similarly, in 2011 SNAP lifted nearly 5 million people out of poverty – 2 million of them children.  Reports also show that most people leave the program after a year, demonstrating that it is doing exactly what it’s meant to, helping people who hit a bad patch get back on their feet.

Attack: People receiving government assistance are just lazy and don’t want to work.
Response:  People living in poverty can’t afford to be lazy.  One of the best indications that someone is poor in America today is that they are working more than one job and more than 40 hours per week.  Programs like food stamps make sure that families hit by the recession have enough to eat until they get back on their feet. Most of SNAP recipients are veterans, working people, children, seniors, and the disabled.  Are they lazy?  Three quarters of households on food stamps also work, and most of the recipients who don’t are either children, the elderly, or disabled.

Killer Facts

  • Over 16 million children were living in poverty in 2012 and over 7 million were living in extreme poverty.
  • 4 out of 5 American adults will face economic insecurity at some point in their lifetimes, and the risk of falling into poverty is growing.
  • There are 26 million Americans who, even with full time work, would still be living in poverty.
  • Half of American children live in families that will rely on food stamps at some point during their childhoods.
  • 99% of SNAP benefits go to Americans who need them, like children, their parents who were laid off during the recession, and seniors whose retirements disappeared in the Wall Street Crisis. That means only 1% of money misses its target — not as good as zero percent but a very well-run program.
  • Compare that with the crop insurance program — which counts Republican lawmakers who want SNAP cuts among its recipients — which has a fraud rate five times higher.
  • In 2011, SNAP lifted nearly 5 million people out of poverty, including over 2 million children. This is more than any other program.


There are over 2000 verses in the Bible that speak about our responsibility to the poor.  This is a demand that is not only placed on individuals, but on the leaders of a nation as well.  Our system of government and the structure of our society is very different from those of the Bible, so we must be careful in how we draw parallels.  But as the Apostle Paul states in Romans, those in authority exist to serve the people’s good.  And Scripture has a clear message for the leaders of a nation and its citizens about how they are to treat the least of these in their midst.

–     Speaking to Israel’s king, in his capacity as king, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Did not your father [the previous king] east and drink and do justice and righteousness?  Then it was well with him.  He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.  Is not this what it means to know me?” says the Lord.  “But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jer. 22:15-17).

–     Often just a little context brings new meaning to Biblical passages.  In ancient Biblical cities, the city gate was often the economic and judicial center of the region, and significantly, it was where people would come to have government authorities make legal decisions.  The prophet Amos drew on this imagery when he declared, “They hate the one who reprimands in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth … Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5:10, 14-15).

–     Speaking to Israel’s leaders at a time when Israel had descended into injustice and decadence – all the while practicing outward piety – Isaiah condemns their hypocrisy saying, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts …Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1: 11, 16-17).

–     And it is not just the prophets who expect much of those in power, Jesus also said, “To whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Lk 12:48).  We entrust our leaders with the power to act on our behalf and for our benefit.  This is a high calling to serve.

Other important verses include

–     “Mercy triumphs over judgment! What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead“ (James 2: 14-17).

–     “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan … The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, the wicked have no such understanding” (Proverbs 29:7).

–     “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident so he can continue to live among you … you must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit” (Leviticus 25: 35-38). This is an example of why it is always important to understand the historical context of the text – they treated aliens a lot better a few thousand years ago than we do today in this country.  God would be forced to use a different example to make this point today.

–     “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land” (Deut. 15:11).


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