On math and charity

panic_graphThe Washington Post carries some water today for Jim Wallis, an evangelical social activist. The story, by domestic economic policy reporter Jonathan Weisman and religion reporter Alan Cooperman, is about Christian approaches on Republican spending policies.

As a recovering economist — and reporter who covers federal programs — I have to make a point in defense of statistical analysis. It’s no secret that reporters enjoy budget analysis about as much as we like sources who burn us. But math is our friend. It keeps us from beginning stories this way:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

If last year your boss gave you a 6% raise and this year you only receive a 5% raise, is that an income cut? In Washington, D.C., it is — but reporters should know better. An increase in spending, no matter how contentious, really should not be called a cut. Anyway, without making any comment on whether this budget change is worthy of protest, the story is that the House of Representatives voted to slow the increase in the rate of spending. But we’re Get Religion and not Get Math, so let’s proceed:

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking — but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

housing project 2Don’t you love news stories that read like opinion pieces? Here are the details of the protest:

To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin [budget] measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations — the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ — issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings “good news to the poor.”

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: “Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan.”

By the end of the story, after many evangelical Christians have been cast as religious hypocrites who don’t care about the poor, the Post reporters allow them to defend their policy positions. In the Post’s defense — and as I have come to expect from at least one of the two bylined reporters for this story — care is taken to make sure that perspective is understood and presented correctly:

And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives “know that the government is not really capable of love.”

“You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need,” she said.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government’s role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

“There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact,” he said. “But it does not say government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.”

Without contrasting the outcomes of church and state charity for the last couple of thousand years, isn’t it weird that reporters never write news stories that put those folks who support governmental charity on the defensive? Should reporters investigate the motivations of those people who advocate for housing projects that breed crime, subsidized income programs with incentives for bearing more and more children out of wedlock and welfare programs that drive fathers away from homes? Or have reporters settled the debate that the preferred way to show concern for the poor is through massive federal programs, regardless of their results?

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    Jim Wallis is more of a sub-sub-shill for the Democrats on their “we have religion and values too” than an “evangelical.”

    Yes it is a foregone question. I often wonder if people like Wallis have ever spent a few days without cameras and an entourage in the projects somewhere. I don’t see how anyone could do that and ever support federal handouts/bribes/waste again. I can only understand that kind of reaction as a self-inflicted delusional coping mechanism to stave off either despair or a realistic sense of the enormous problems that dwarf even the best lifelong efforts at solutions.

  • Michael

    Actually, Wallis’ ministry is in an impovrished section of Washington, D.C. where he sees the effects of government neglect and a conservative economic social policy every day. There may be plenty of reasons to take swipes at Wallis, but that isn’t one of them.

    Does James Dobson ever interact with the domestic poor? Do the Concerned Women for America take time from sending out missives to help the poor?

  • Brad

    There is something almost stomach-churning to me in those two bills, as they were juxtaposed by the House.

    To say “we need to trim the deficit so let’s take some from Medicaid, student loans and housing assistance,” then also say “let’s give ourselves a tax cut (aimed at those who already have more than enough money, I might add) that’s bigger than the amount we would save from those program cuts”…I just don’t get that.

    The fact is, and any recovering economist can surely see this, government has the ability to achieve economies of scale that no 1/4-tithe (the amount an average US evangelical gives, last I saw) can match. Do we need better, more effective public policy? Sure, I’m always up for better ideas.

    But I can’t see how cutting public assistance for the needy among us while giving more money to those who absolutely have enough of it already is anything but selfish.


  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Brad, agreement all around except…

    One of Mollie’s points is that dropping a 6% raise to a 5% raise is not a “cut.”

    And that’s a fact.

    On the other hand, cutting your expenses by $50, then taking a $70 pay cut, is not “deficit reduction” either.

  • kangapus

    Michael, are you joking? As a DC resident, I can assure you we don’t suffer from governmental neglect or conservative “economic social policy” — we’re 92% Democrat, thank you very much.

  • Brad


    Yes, the issue isn’t a cut (bad choice of words) so much as a rearrangement of available money to give it specifically to the rich and not the poor.

    I would point out, too, that year-over-year allocation isn’t really an honest measure, either. You have to count inflation, which given that it’s risen the last few months, probably pretty much eats that “increase” they reduced for the tax cuts.

    Policy is my background, and I quit HHS (my first job) after hearing people I was there with advocating a 1% increase in the budget as an increase when their own inflation #’s were 4%. I saw it as dishonest then and this sounds like more dishonesty to me.

    Kangapus, DC is quite liberal! I think Michael was referring to federal economic policies, which are decidedly not liberal.


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Brad: 1/4-tithe (the amount an average US evangelical gives, last I saw)

    Brad, do you mean the average evangelical tithes 1/4 of his income, or that he donates 2.5% of his income, one quarter of the traditional 10% tithe?

  • Brad

    1/4 of the traditional 10% tithe. 25% of income would be quite impressive!:)


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Molly, about this 5%-6% raise thing — Could you say exactly what you’re talking about? Are you saying that the legislation described in the article — “a House-passed budget-cutting measure that would save $50 billion over five years by trimming food stamp rolls, imposing new fees on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting child-support enforcement funds and paring agriculture programs” — is inaccurately described? If so, could you provide or link to an accurate description?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Not that I don’t love a good policy debate, and not that folks aren’t bringing up excellent points, but the question is why those who advocate large-scale government programs are never put on the defensive by the press in the way that those who oppose government programs are.

    Why do you think that is?

    Is government spending the only — or even just the preferred — method of caring for the poor? If so, why?

  • Michael

    Because those who oppose large government programs are in charge. They control the presidency and Congress and every administrative agency. And they have controlled the purse strings of our government for most of the last 35 years.

    One role of the press is to question the status quo and those in power. Since the status quo and those in power opposed large government programs, it is appropriate to question their motives and beliefs.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    The manner in which the reporters chose to describe the budget bill was the same way Democratic leadership would. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that it’s not what you might hear from those on other sides.

    I’m skeptical by nature and tend not to believe anybody when it comes to budgets. Also, you honestly wouldn’t believe the infinite number of ways reporters/policy wonks/hucksters can describe the very same aspect of a budget.

    My specific beef, however, is that the House version that folks are wrangling over right now will grow spending at a rate of 5.6% instead of 5.7%. (I haven’t looked at the numbers in a month, but I’m pretty sure that’s right.)

    I don’t care how remedial your math skills are — that is just not a cut. Or if it is, please tell my boss to give me that same cut for my raise next year.

    But let’s try to keep this focus on the way the media treat various religiously-motivated approaches to charity work.

    Why are those who advocate government programs given a free pass by reporters? Why are those who dislike government programs or want to restrain their growth in any way at all tagged as hypocrites?

    Let’s try to focus this discussion on coverage of religion in the media . . .

  • Brad

    The why question:

    Being the biased, government-program fan that I am, I might be inclined to say it’s because government programs (the horrendous response to Katrina excepted) are usually the best means we’ve been able to find to help the poor.

    Another possibility might be that the MSM usually is full of people who would feel like they were going to be seen as attacking or devaluing the poor if they were to put those who favor these programs on the defensive.

    The cynical answer might be that the MSM is liberal and, hey, they write the stories. :)

    As to whether that’s the only method? Probably not, but I assert it’s the best method we’ve devised. I have seen no evidence in the research, etc. that large scale problems have been controlled or solved in another way. Now, is government perfect? No way! But I haven’t seen another way.

    Maybe we should all restudy Acts and use their model. But then, who among us wouldn’t end up like Ananias and Sapphira if we were all asked to pool our resources?


  • Michael

    When I read the story this morning, I thought it was a refreshing example of questioning the motivations of religious conservatives and their approach to poverty issues. It is an issue that’s rarely discussed in the MSM, and even the conservative media rarely examines the work of religious conservatives in dealing with poverty except for praising the Salvation Army.

  • kangapus

    But Michael, why didn’t they question the motivations of the religious liberals and their approach? In reporting, shouldn’t one assume the reader doesn’t have an understanding of either motivation? You may understand the motivations of the religious liberals, but not everyone does. Why question one group and not the other?

  • Heminator

    Refreshing Michael? Hardly. I find it quite ignorant.

    One quick point here that I think is vital to Mollie’s case, but she touched on it at the end and no one seems to have picked up on it, so let me state it explicitly:

    There is no direct correlation between more spending on government programs and allieviating poverty. It depends on the specific program and method for distributing the money.

    Not to rain on Brad or Michael’s parade, but I would point out (just being one example) as a resident of DC, that it has one one of the highest per capita student spending levels anywhere, yet it is one of the worst school districts in the nation.

    Sometimes spending more money on bad programs can do more harm – see welfare reform. So to protest any overall spending cut (or decrease in percentage of new spending above last year I guess) without highlighting the specific cuts they find harmful AND giving justification for why that is, well, it is just pointless. And this article doesn’t really do that; it just takes as an article of faith that these traditional government poverty programs are a good thing.

    I don’t think throwing good money after bad is more biblical, nor is more spending automatically more compassionate.

  • Michael

    They did question the motives, and Wallis gave a Biblical explanation of why he does poverty work. In a quick, beat newspiece, the reporters had a surprising level of balance and appear to have interviewed a number of people — far more conservatives, in fact.

    I think an investigative report on the alleged failures of alleged “massive government programs” would make a great investigative piece, but this was a quick news story about a Congress that’s passing budget cuts or a slow-down in spending.

  • Brad

    If federal government failures is the issue (and clearly the federal response to Katrina was horrendous), maybe we should fire those in charge of it.

    Heminator, as I mentioned, earlier, I don’t deny government programs are flawed. I deny that we have better answers for how to serve the poor.

    And I also deny that those who would cut taxes (or support those who would cut taxes) just as they (quite disingenuously) cut programs for the poor to “balance the deficit” are acting in any way because they care about those in poverty.

    From all the evidence I see, the conservatives in this case, either political or religious, are not acting because they care about the poor or have a better idea for how to serve them, they’re acting because they want more money back.


  • Joe

    Yes, it is eminently clear that Robertson and other conservative Christians, don’t care about the poor. In fact, I’m sure Robertson’s chief motive for opposing abortion is to multiply his opportunities for depriving poor children of food and housing.

    BTW, I think Brad should have to spend a few nights in Cabrini Green by himself before he is allowed to post again in favor of Great Society programs.

  • kangapus

    Yes, he is quoted in the story, but they didn’t question his motivations for support of increased spending. Just because he works to help the poor does not explain why he thinks the government should spend more money to do so. Does he think the government would be more effective then he is? Does he get his funding from the government? There are many different reasons to support increased government spending, but this story doesn’t even attempt to tell me what the religious left’s motivations are.

  • Brad

    I didn’t think *anyone* still took Robertson’s side…except for maybe Charles Taylor.

    I admit, and have admitted, that government programs are flawed. I challenge anyone to come up with a better option, though.

    I also submit that CG is a bit old news at this point. Government learns and evolves just like every other large organization. Incidentally, CG is also in a redevelopment phase and, while ugly, is better.

    A better suggestion might be East St. Louis.


  • Brad

    I agree, kangapus, that such a story might be interesting.

    It’s strange, actually, that as far as I can tell, it hasn’t been done.


  • Dan Crawford

    I’m always intrigued that those most critical (in the name of free enterprise, the inability of government to do anything right, or any other ideological reason) come up with all sorts of plans to aid the poor by putting money in the pockets of those who are not poor. The great phrase (remember this from the days of Ronald Reagan?) “trickle down economics” was correctly interpreted by many poor people as “pissing on the poor” – but from an approach to government that hoped to decree ketchup as a vegetable as a way of cutting back on lunch programs for school program, this was no great surprise. Now we get the same shell game from the “compassionate conservative”. As far as taking statistics seriously – I guess we could all spend an hour listening Greenspan gobbledygook.

    I had seven graduate courses in statistics on my way to the PhD – what I learned about statistics is that they can be manipulated to present what “truth” the manipulator wants to present. I tend not to pay attention when monthly economic figures are breathlessly conveyed to the press, and the press deals with them non-critically.

    As for the concern of the Robertson’s, Dobson’s, et al for the poor, look for the money.

  • Heminator

    “I didn’t think *anyone* still took Robertson’s side . . .except for maybe Charles Taylor.”

    Nice moral equivalancy – in one step we went from the merits of U.S. government poverty programs to genocide essentially. Elegant really.

    Also, a total non-sequitur and sadly indicative of Brad’s willingness to defend the indefensible. Joe wasn’t defending Robertson, merely attacking your logic Brad.

    Since the programs are already being cut, the burden of proof is on those who want to prove they are effective, not a question for you to ask to others.

  • kangapus
  • Brad

    “Since the programs are already being cut, the burden of proof is on those who want to prove they are effective, not a question for you to ask to others.”

    This is the equivalent of Bush saying “well, we’re already at war, so we shouldn’t talk about whether or not I cooked the intelligence.”

    My point in the Robertson reference was that I am unconvinced by the use of Robertson in anyone’s defense and, for the record, right to life causes are one area I do agree with Robertson (if he really believes what he says). Would you recommend I use, say, Chavez or Castro to prove my own points? Doubt it, because you could no longer take the argument seriously.


  • Brad

    I should correct myself on an earlier post…I just read that evangelicals give 40% of a tithe (4% of their income), not the originally cited 25% (2.5% of income).

    For those who are interested in these kinds of stats, it has dropped from 6% of income in 1968 and has dropped as those who self-identify as evangelical have gotten richer. So, probably, as people have gotten richer, they’ve kept giving the same absolute $ amounts.


  • Walter


    Great post and follow up…it’s good to have you aboard.

  • Harris

    Back to Mollie’s point about why call a decrease a cut… the answer lies in part because the impact measured in terms of services in fact does represent a real reduction in numbers served. The most egregious being the 220,000 that would be dropped from Food Stamp programs, according to CBO numbers.

    Secondly, the House reduction stands in naked contrast to the decision of the Senate not to reduce these programs. The House action is an affirmative action to restrict these programs, so whether it is called a decrease or cut the motive is the same — attack the social welfare.

    As one who organized one of these protests, I can also testify that we had framed the issue in terms of religious issues, not politics. As offensive as the initial cut in social spending was, it was the second act, that of extending the capital gains/dividends tax cuts that sparked the protest:one sacrifices, another reaps. We did not protest because we were advocating for government charity but because the actions of taking and bestowing were so phenomenally imbalanced.

    (oh, and about that line about “driving fathers away from homes, etc. etc.” you do realize, Mollie, that the House bill cut monies for enforcement of child support judgements, a measure with an estimated loss to families on the order of $24 billion over the next 10 years?)

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    I agree with Mollie that government policies should be judged by outcomes, not by supposed motives. The world’s a strange place, policy mechanics are even stranger, and the country would be better off all around if we were able to make policy decisions concerning how best to help the poor more subject to analysis, and less subject to opinions and yearnings of the heart, religious and otherwise.

    Which is a completely different subject from my obligations to the poor as a Christian, which aren’t tied to (worldly) outcomes at all, and for which Christ has laid down a standard of giving ranging from whatever they ask of me, to everything I own.

    It’s considering such distances that the pressing need for a secular government and an apolitical church becomes clearest to me. A lilies of the field, daily-bread approach to government would be a disaster, just as a grow-the-economy, law-and-order approach to Christian life would be. Is.

    I think Wallis has a Christian’s heart for the poor, but that he errs in trying to counter Dobson, Robertson et al by invoking Jesus’ name for political aims, just on the other side. That’s a game you lose by playing.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana


    Wallis and his cohort aren’t talking about charity–they are talking about another biblical concept–justice, drawing on the OT prophets, who gave Israel (and other nations) hell for economic and governmental practices that adversely affected poor people. The Post reporters, in talking to Evangelical leaders, showed again how many of we Evangelicals ignore the scriptural teaching in this area.

    The biblical prophets did not want government to “love” anyone. They expected government to treat people fairly and to make some provision for the poor. Cutting more than 200,000 people off food stamps while asking for another 100 billion for the war effort would have fallen afoul of the OT prophets, and Wallis is drawing on that tradition

    On the plus side, the piece does show progress by evangelicals on world issues.

  • tmatt

    Back to Mollie’s original point about language — about the word “cuts.”

    I know that strange things happen when you are forced to write short, being the veteran of 17 years writing a weekly column that is written to a tight, plus or minus 10 words length.

    But when in doubt, simply describe that is happening. Say that you are cutting a budget means that you are cutting it. Be literal.

    Cutting the SERVICES, through a decrease in the rate of increase. Is a serious issue. But it is better when reporters actually tell readers what they are writing about and let the reader judge.

    One of my mentors said it best: Strive, strive, strive not to write words that you know are not true. Strive to find words that are accurate to the average reader.

    That is Mollie’s point.

  • shari

    well iused to be on welare and i can tell all you rosy eyes liberals it does NOTHING to help the poor. only keeps them in poverty and housing projects. things got better when i closed my legs and bmade better chocies. I DONT WANT WELFARE. It does not work. the war on poverty has been wagesd, and it is a dismal failure. dont tell me about jim wallis living among the poor i was the poor. and what he neends to do is to encourage the poor to stophaving babies they cant take care of, abstain dont kill them. and GET A JOB. A JOB. Being Christian doesnt mean you have to support welfare aI am sick on this. I think JIm Wallis just like jesse lee perterson is sick of the spot light that pat robertson and jesse jackson get and they just want their time in the sun. Christinas are tro pay taxes Jesus saisd that. Also we tithe trhough our churches and most churches have works that help the poor. Also we give privately if we see som eon eon the street webuy them food, my h usband just gave a homeless man ten dollars even though hecould just buy beer. and we ooppose welfare so dont tell me as a ch ristian i have to support welfare to be a good christian. I will continue to give to organiztions like cbn, ssalvatrin army, and local charities. I dnt care what Jim walllis says. this is a man who wrote a book puporting to know what “gods politics” are. If I truly believes in god I wouldnt say that I know the min dof God. In closing i come from those “impovrished” communities. And all we need is for famiuies to be intact. Flor a mother an da father to be thetr eand be raising the childre. For girls to dress dmodeslty. When the poor

  • shari

    why is welfare justice. I am sick of you rich white liberals who think yo uknow better I USED TO BE ON WELFARE AND IT IS NOT JUTICE I have a friend who keeps haveing babies i ask her why she doesnt just abstain or use a condom she says she lieks the way it feel with a condom. i said what if you get an std. she doesnt care. you have to change the behaviors of people. This is a girl who uses every service there: government school for her special needs child, medicaid, food stamps, welfare, disability, housing assistance, bus tickets, school. HEr son is now 4 and she is still on welfare. I am mad about this. NO one talks about all of the households run by a singler mother. dont you think that has somethign to do with it. just watch mary povich women sleeping with many men and not even knowing who their childs father is. that is why we have poverty. poor choices.what about feminists. women workign outside the home. study after study proves that child care if bad for chidlren.

    WELFARE IS NOT JUSTICE I am going to start a blog I am sick of this and I ams sick of the media bias towards favoring welfare

    Im through I cant stay anymore I am so upset. If i was an advisor to a presidet. I would end welfare, corportae, and private, end ALL abortion a baby is a baby no exceptions, then i would do someting about bringing quality american jobs back.

    im done

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    It’s absurd on so many levels to buy Wallis’s self-comparison with biblical prophets and government today with government back then.

    I’d like to invite Mr. Smietana to an educational weekend in the newer Chicago projects they’re moving former Cabrini residents into. However, I can take no responsibility for aneurysms resulting from profound cognitive dissonance.

    There are precious few truly poor people in this country, and hunger in any populated areas is usually a consequence of people wasting money on junk food and non-food items.

    In the present context of an acute breakdown of families, a related loss of work ethics, and instant-gratification consumerism then federal welfare handouts are just so much money down the rathole–as bad or worse than military spending. Bribes to placate lifestyle dependence or swords to pacify (or rouse) existing and potential militants abroad. Pick your poison.

  • Brad

    The main point I would make to DK and others who argue against these programs, Wallis’ self-comparison to Biblical prophets notwithstanding, is that we have come up with no better ways to solve these problems. Cabrini sucks, to put it bluntly, but it was a real attempt at solving the problem. We learn from mistakes as a state, I believe, just as we do as individuals.

    As an advocate for government programs, I’ll also be the first to admit that the goal isn’t a government program in and of itself, the goal is to alleviate these large, systemic problems.

    Has anyone ever come up with a better answer, realistically, available to our fallen world, to deal with these problems? My main argument is that Christians shouldn’t accept throwing up their hands and saying “it’s just the world we live in until the Lord comes” as a solution.

    I’d *love* to hear ideas that will work.


  • shari

    for one politicians need to try to make sure that good jobs stay in america and privately people need to bmake better decisions in america there is free education make a good use of it. and close your legs women. its all about choices.