Our Depraved Poor

Our Depraved Poor August 22, 2011

It is past time to admit a very hard truth: America’s poverty problem is also a depravity problem.

It is simply a fact that people who work hard, finish their education, get married, and stay married are rarely — very rarely — poor.  There is no other proven formula for lifting Americans out of poverty.  None.  Food stamps don’t do it.  Medicaid doesn’t do it.  Soup kitchens don’t do it.  Good intentions don’t do it.  Hundreds of billions of dollars of transfer payments have not budged the poverty rate.

Simply put, any anti-poverty efforts not aimed at getting kids to complete an education, get married, and stay married are a waste of time.  They may ameliorate immediate physical needs, but the very act of ameliorating those needs renders a destructive lifestyle sustainable and viable.

Walter Russell Mead reminded me of this reality in a must-read post discussing some rather sobering sociological findings.  It turns out that poor, less-educated Americans are turning their backs on religion at a far greater rate than more-educated Americans.  Here are the key findings:

The study also shows that Americans with higher incomes attend religious services more often, and those who have experienced unemployment at some point over the past 10 years attend less often. In addition, the study finds that those who are married (especially if they have children), those who hold more conservative views toward premarital sex, and those who lost their virginity later than their peers, attend religious services more frequently.

Indeed, the study points out that modern religious institutions tend to promote a family-centered morality that valorizes marriage and parenthood, and they embrace traditional middle-class virtues such as self-control, delayed gratification, and a focus on education.

Over the past 40 years, however, the moderately educated have become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults.

In other words, vicious and virtuous cycles exist simultaneously.  For the least-educated, the less they attend church the less they’re exposed to “middle-class values,” which causes them to engage in behaviors that further alienate them from church.  For the educated, the cycle is the reverse.  The church reinforces the values that permit them to maintain middle-class standing, which keeps them within the “familistic” culture — and in church.

The result is a set of competing cultures, with social mobility defined primarily by the adoption of the behavioral practices of the opposing cultures.  Illegitimacy and divorce are engines of downward mobility just as marriage and education are engines of upward mobility.  Providing material support without contributing to cultural change is an exercise in futility and is often harmful.  And the key to culture is Christ.

In short, the poor need Jesus but have never been culturally more distant from Him.

Mead says this distance is largely the fault of the church:

It is the most scorching indictment of America’s religious communities I can think of that more has not been done to reach out to those most in need of both the spiritual and the social benefits of faith.  Every member of a religious congregation in this country should be asking how he or she could be doing more.

I agree in part.  Yes, we should be asking how we can do more, but in doing “more” we should realize that our anti-poverty efforts largely address symptoms and not causes.

For many, many years I spent time “in the trenches” reaching out to at-risk youth.  At first I was the stereotypical naive idealist.  “All they need is love and a chance,” I thought.  Working in mentoring programs, I spent untold hours playing catch, going to little league games, going to parks, and just hanging out with at-risk kids as part of a variety of programs.  Seeing ragged clothes, I’d buy new clothes.  Hearing that a mother couldn’t pay the light bill, I’d kick in and help.  I spent night after night sleeping in homeless shelters, cooking dinners in the evening, pancake breakfasts in the morning, and fixing snack lunches for hard days on the streets.

I can’t remember when I first realized that I was accomplishing nothing of substance.  A few car break-ins taught me that some guys saw me as an easy mark.  A few pot purchases with the “gas bill money” taught me that others saw me as an ATM.  Admonitions to “stay in school” had little appeal compared to drug-fueled orgies for kids as young as fifteen years old.  I tried.  God knows I tried.  But it was all for naught.

Only one thing really worked.  The Cross.  There are kids today that Nancy and I worked with who are doing well, who are happily married, and who are pillars of their community.  What made the difference for them?  The Cross.  It wasn’t about my words.  It wasn’t about my effort.  (After all, I tried just as hard or harder with other kids — who are now in prison or “baby-daddies” or both.)  The kids who made it heard the Gospel, repented of sin, and were transformed through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

It’s trendy now for churches to put less emphasis on the Gospel and more emphasis on service.  I’ve even heard Christians almost brag that their outreach efforts don’t include any proselytizing at all.  This is tragic.  Billions of dollars of “service” won’t change hearts and lives.  We know that now.  In fact, those very billions may very well numb the human heart to the gravity of its sin.

So, yes, let’s do “more,” but let’s make sure that “more” is aimed at the real source of American poverty — our depravity.

UPDATE:  This post — along with a much shorter post on NRO — have triggered quite an interesting discussion.  I unpack some of the theological issues surrounding “depravity” (including the obvious point that we’re all sinful and depraved) here.

In this post, I collect a variety of relevant federal statistics on poverty showing the impact of education and marital status on unemployment and poverty.

Finally, in this post (formerly the most-read post in French Revolution history), I address the question: What can I do to fight poverty?

This is an immense topic, and this post is just one part of a much longer discussion that I hope you’ll join.  I’ll be posting quite a bit more in the next few weeks and months.

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  • Steve Butler

    Excellent points – I’m on the board of Matthew 25 and the homeless men that come through the program successfully and stay successful long-term do so because the changes that occur on the inside.

  • Ed

    I spent five years in public housing and while I can’t speak to the religious values per se, the simple fact is that there is a completely different culture with completely different values.

  • Duke Cheston

    Amen, Mr. French, amen! Thank you for writing this. It’s absolutely right on.

  • fuster

    I’m not sure that this essay is depraved, but it’s certainly poor.

    Faith is fine, but reason and logic aren’t unnecessary when you’re trying to write a diagnosis and treatment plan.

  • Annette Curran

    I really enjoyed your remarks David; I have to agree. the only thing that really works when you are doing service for others is to teach them how to help themselves. It never works to do everything for them or give them everything without working for it.
    I belong to a church that has a wonderful welfare system where people work for what they are given. It gives them self esteem as well as teaches them to survive on their own.

  • Liz

    What are you talking about? Your comment was left field.

  • David

    Thanks for the excellent article. I agree 100%. Living the principles of the Gospel is what brings people out of poverty. It reminds me of a passage from the Book of Mormon (Alma 31:5):

    5 And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

  • Vineyard

    “The kids who made it heard the Gospel, repented of sin, and were transformed through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.”

    I could not agree more. I also worked with at-risk youth right out of college and know this to be true. Great post. I will be sharing with others.

  • fuster

    Liz, I’m referring to the very odd and apparently illogical assertions in the essay.

    for example….. “Simply put, any anti-poverty efforts not aimed at getting kids to complete an education, get married, and stay married are a waste of time. ”

    getting married and staying that way…. somehow takes people out of poverty or renders them free from depravity.

    which field is that from?

  • fuster
  • Cody Stauffer

    And, how did you get to know those kids and connect with them so that they would listen to you and give credence to what you were trying to teach them? It isn’t an either/or.

  • Cody Stauffer

    And it certainly wasn’t teaching them “middle class values.” As you mentioned, it was the Gospel. Let’s not make unnecessary conditions or attachments to the Gospel. A person touched by the Gospel might rightly embrace poverty, as opposed to “marriage and middle class status.”

  • Kevin

    You might have to dig deeper. You’re stuck in the Victorian era.


  • fuster

    Kevin, that’s an overview of world conditions and doesn’t really speak to the contention about conditions here in America.

    Religion doesn’t cause poverty, poverty doesn’t cause religion …even though there may be connections in both cases…..equally poverty has NEVER been shown to be either caused or cured by religion.

    Too much generalization going on here.

  • This study you’ve linked to doesn’t support the above statement. It only notes the condition exists.

  • fuster

    Mark, if that study does not show that getting or staying married doesn’t lead to an end to poverty (or depravity) please point out how.

  • “Conclusions

    In this paper, we have provided an initial descriptive appraisal of the population of disadvantaged married couples in the U.S. Comparing couples along several indicators of economic disadvantage, we have looked at marriage entries and exits, at the timing of first parenthood relative to marriage, at demographic and economic characteristics, and at marital quality. ”

    All through the paper the author of the study uses words like “descriptive,” “examined” et. cetera. It never, anywhere in the study draws the conclusions you suggest it does. It does not make a causal link between “depravity” and the like. It simply describes a situation by surveying the population.

    Any anti-poverty effort should include components aimed at getting kids to complete their HS degree and strive towards college. That should be a given, and many programs do. But the aims of any anti-poverty effort would be truly ill-served by the use of ridiculously hyperbolic and judgmental language like “depravity.”

    As to encouraging people to stay married, it is ultimately a personal choice, and as a leftist it seems to me antithetical to the conservative position against interference in the personal lives of Americans. Shikata ga nai, as they say in Japan (it can’t be helped).

    Of course the most successful preventative measures for decreasing the number of out of wedlock births, sex ed, contraception promotion, are pooh-poohed in favor of teaching abstinence or ignoring the matter until it is too late.

    It serves no one to act as if it is still the 1950’s. The race has already started and us older married types w/ kids need to recognize the times have changed.

  • fuster

    Mark, I do believe that you are mistaking my position for the position of the author of the essay.

    My position is that David French (and his description of the poor as “depraved”) is very, very far from correct.

  • Rev. David Willerup

    While the essay addresses the correlation between material and spiritual poverty in a tone that resonates with fiscal and social conservatives, it fails to address a crucial truth on its way to a severely simplified answer to a tremendously complex problem.

    The author divides people into “us/we” who are educated, materially blessed and married, and “they/them” who are undereducated, materially poor and in or from broken relationships. They are depraved. We are not.

    But depravity isn’t a condition belonging to the materially impoverished. Depravity is a condition common to all humanity, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is not one righteous non-depraved person among us. Not only does that make us all absolutely dependent on the grace of God for our salvation, but it also levels the playing field.

    We’re all depraved, and that fundamental truth must inform all we do to alleviate poverty. From a spiritual perspective, it is arrogant and Pharisaical to assume that believers with cash are automatically qualified to determine what the materially poor need. Better by far to let the mind of Christ be in us and humble ourselves, to not grasp for the status of education or wealth, but to become servants who are willing to, as Isaiah says, “spend yourselves on behalf of the poor.”

    That spending of self is not about educational programs or marriage enrichment. Such things are definitely helpful, but what matters more is relationship, the spending of self – not resources or political clout – but of time and caring and personal faith. To believe in someone who is also created in God’s image, for whom God sent his Son to die, and among whom God is, has been, and will be at work to show evidence of his grace, now *that* will break the yoke of poverty’s oppression.

    Why? Because, as cited by the International Monetary Fund, the poor do not describe poverty in terms of a lack of resources. It is about powerlessness, having no voice, feeling trapped, inferior and alone. When someone approaches such a person to tell them why they’re failing and what they have to do, that’s not heard as helpful. It reinforces that sense of entrapment and communicates blame. To develop ongoing independence a relationship rooted in the recognition of mutual poverty and brokenness is required.

    The materially poor do not need more hoops to jump through. They don’t need more programs and requirements and policies. Give yourself, your love, your time. Listen for evidence of God’s grace. And don’t ever assume that because you’ve got money and education and marriage that you have the right to pop out of that servant’s position to assume a position of superiority. There’s no better way to galvanize someone’s sense of inferiority than to claim a moral high ground which no depraved person has the right to take.

    Give Carson and Fikkert’s “When Helping Hurts” (Moody Press) a read. That book has changed my perspective on poverty completely.

  • what about the ‘depraved rich’? there no difference except one of economics. the rich can economically cover up their sin better than the poor (maybe). The Gospel message and Gospel mercy go hand in hand – whether you’re rich or middle class or poor.

  • Having just recently moved to the most impoverished area in our state (in which our church — from 3 hours away — has been working and building relationships for the past few years), these perspectives are all new to us. Thank you for writing this.

    I had similar thoughts in this post:


    As my wife and I serve in an after school program in this area, we see how (as Ed said in the comments) there just is a different culture. Not right or wrong, just different.

    The problem is that to succeed in this country, certain standards are expected. For example, in cultures of generational poverty, constant conversation is common, but that won’t cut it in a typical white collar environment.

    So, we have to be diligent to love them where they are, while also helping them see that many of their behaviors (which have been in their families for generations) are counterproductive to the things that will help them achieve.

  • jgkojak

    This is among the least literate and most wrong-headed essays I have seen in some time.

    Many studies have been done showing that upwards of 75% of people on welfare have a learning disability or a mental health disorder. (Or do you consider bi-polar disorder depravity?)

    Likewise, over 60% of prison inmates have learning disabilities.

    Perhaps people drop out because they are unable to learn in school systems where IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) is treated as a joke. What if you put some of your misdirected ire at encouraging early start and special education for these students.

    I thought conservatism embraced facts and science? Not so in this article.

  • psycholinguist

    You have this quote from the article:
    ” It turns out that poor, less-educated Americans are turning their backs on religion at a far greater rate than more-educated Americans”

    When I went to read the article summary, it turns out, this doesn’t work with nonwhites. I’m wondering why you didn’t mention that. Do you think those people aren’t Americans? I’d love to hear your best guess as to why you think black and Latino religiosity doesn’t predict education or income level.

  • Marc Widershien

    Never believe anyone who cannot document what he says. This is an exercise in bigotry and has very little to do with Christianity.

  • Marc Widershien

    The only depravity I can see is the totally undocumented statements of this rabble rouser.

  • Marc Widershien

    Brilliantly said. As William Blake once said: “You cannot make someone rich without making someone else poor.”

  • Michelle

    I showed this page to a friend of mine, who is a high-school math and biology teacher. Here is her reply:

    Marriage has nothing to do with it. Working hard has little to do with it. Jesus has *nothing* to do with it. The two keys are education and work availability.

    If you are born into poverty, finishing your education is going to be far harder than if you are born into privilege. You may be in a household where safety is a concern because of local violence, where the internet is an unattainable expense and trips to the local library are considered unsafe due to gangs. You may be unable to concentrate on studying because you are wondering where your next meal is coming from, because you are the caretaker for not only younger children but also for adults who don’t have good medical insurance, or because you are working outside the home to try to keep the roof over the family’s head. You may be facing a lot of familial pressure to take the first minimum-wage fast-food job that comes along because they are *hard* to get due to local competition and because your earnings NOW matter more to the family than your potential future earnings. our family may even have a culture which denigrates the educated as people who have abandoned core values, going away to college and “changing” their priorities, or they may distrust the educated, or even believe that work done with the brain isn’t “real” work, not like work done with the *hands.*

    And then, even if you do get the education, finding a good job with chances of advancement is not what it was during the USA’s boom years. Last I heard, people under 25 had more than 20% unemployment. The harder it is to get a good job, that you will never catch up economically to those who did not have the problem.

  • Louis Sanchez

    I have observed “the poor”, and worked with the poor, and was once probably considered poor myself. This idea of lumping “the poor” into one box with one solution is simply more talk and little action. The poor I have met and served are able to be put in several different categories, try these…. with teeth without teeth, (go try and get a job without teeth), Submissive and antagonistic, with capacity for love, no capacity for love, extreme psychological damage, Extreme abandonment issues, giving up on “being” normal and “middle class” successful. etc, etc, etc….

    We rescue dogs and cats, yet judge our fellows and figure it out for there well being.

    How mentally ill do you have to be to choose leaves over toilet paper on a daily basis.

    How mentally ill do you have to be to throw down your tools and walk away from a job that owes you money that you have earned and never go back to get your paycheck….and then remain homeless.

    These poor are not “broken”. It is not our biblical responsibility to fix them. Jesus did not go around fixing all of the poor he encountered. It is our biblical mandate to help, feed, and LOVE……all we can. LOVE everyone we can. Love takes action.

    Formula writing for the “non-homeless” and the intellectual thinker does little to show Christ’s Love for the poor today in the way of comradery, a hug, a sandwich and just plain listening. Not everyone stays homeless forever. Some do, some die John and Jane Does. We cannot judge a man if we have not walked in “his” shoes, not just walked in shoes that kinda look like his.


  • Ivy

    Yes! Thank you.

  • BobN

    “If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor.”

    Odd words coming from a person who opposes same-sex marriage. I guess the author prefers gay people be poor.

  • David French

    William Blake’s comment bears no resemblance to economic reality. We are not allocating from a fixed economic pie but instead attempting to bring more greater participation into a (hopefully) expanding economy.

  • Billy Jack Coleman

    French, you’re a nutter. I dare you to go spout your Ayn Randian rhetoric to a crowd of factory workers in Detroit who’s jobs just got shipped to Mexico. They’ll probably prove you right about the poor being depraved and just give you a sound beating. But remember, most of them WEREN’T poor all that long ago. It may only take a couple of months for any of you to be financially wiped out by being laid off from work, injury or illness (even with insurance, as I have a friend wh’s going deep into debt to treat his wife’s pancreatic cancer, even though they both have insurance) or for your stocks to take a nosedive and your retirement to disappear. You’re not immune from being poor just because you go to church and think God loves you. And for those of you who agree with Mr French but consider yourselves Christians, remember Matthew 25 verses 41-46:

    41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

    42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

    43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

    44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

    45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

    46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

    So keep hating the poor. If you believe what it says in your “Good Book”, you’ll be rotting right alongside all those “depraved” poor people you’re all complaining about so much.

  • fuster

    Actually, reality is that the economic wealth in America is constantly becoming concentrated in fewer hands whether the pie expands or not….and that DOES tend to mean that there is less left for the many.

    The fact that the richer grow richer probably means that God favors the rich … or that the rich are morally superior…or some other such thing according to your rather “interesting” ideas.

  • Adrian

    In a society run by corporations where competition is the name of the game, it becomes very hard to get out of the vicious circle poverty brings, it is unfair to claim that the poor are poor by choice, nobody wishes to be poor, but the conditions are not there for them to justly work their way out of the poverty hole, even worse is to point fingers at your own brothers and blame them instead of working to help them out.
    “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
    Luke 6:38
    Maitreya ( The World Teacher ) says: ‘Sharing is divine. When you share you recognize God in your brother.’ This is not just a nice idea, it is a divine idea. It is the nature of divinity. Justice is divine, freedom is divine, and Maitreya comes to show us how to make justice and freedom through sharing.

  • peacesojourner

    ‘Living the principles of the Gospel is what brings people out of poverty’
    There are millions of people who do live the principles of the Gospel who also live in poverty, myself included. This is a false statement unless you are referring to receiving the gifts of spiritual wealth and peace of mind.

  • Anonymous

    I’m betting this is a pack of lies for Jesus. Rather like a Chick track but without the bad art work. The very assumption that those who find Jesus are free from the vices of society and find success and contentment is a christian fairy tale continually preached in sheer ignorance of reality.

  • Luther

    Sorry dude, there are a lot a depraved wealthy people…and the Gospel, as it is represented by Mormonism, is heresy. Wealthy Mormons receive their wealth in-spite of Christ, as do millions of wealthy Americans.

    I found it ironic that so many “Christians” use the material world and materialism as a sign that God favors you. According to that logic, Mary and Joseph (and their son Jesus) must have been depraved!

  • David French

    Luther, thanks much for your comment. Please point to the place in the post where I state that there are NOT wealthy depraved people or where I defend LDS theology. Also, please point out where in the post I state that material goods are a sign that God favors you.

    While you’re at it, please explain to me why a person bears no moral responsibility for sinful actions like extramarital sex, criminal behavior, or drug use/abuse. Also explain how a person’s choice not participate in such behaviors wouldn’t be of great benefit in any quest to get out of poverty.

    Or do you believe human accountability is involved at all? Are we all simply at the mercy of social and economic “systems” and the accidents of our birth?

  • Billy,

    There is plenty in the Bible about serving the poor – but the passage you used is not a good one unless your friend is a Christian. You didn’t quote verse 40
    [40] And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

    (Matthew 25:40 ESV)

    Jesus was speaking to Christians about caring for fellow believers.

    There are many other passages that speak to caring for other poor – although perhaps not with the condemnation if you don’t.

    I have served the non-Christian poor for over 40 years.

    I am saddened for your friend and the struggle they are going through – should Christians be there to come around them and support them? Yes, I believe so.

  • fuster

    please point out why extramarital sex is sinful.

  • David,

    Great post. I have served the poor for over 40 years in one capacity after another – beginning right out of college I joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service To America).

    I have seen the travesty of Christian Ministries that get caught up in activity and doing what feels good rather than doing what the poor truly need. It is so much easier to buy bread to walk through life with them to show them why they don’t have the bread.

    In the process we have all too often we have done more harm than good. I tell a story of this here http://kidtrekasp.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/after-school-programs-what-do-at-risk-kids-need/

    Training ministries across the country to serve at-risk kids I had three large ministries, each who had been in ministry for over 30years contact me with the same question and sad truth. “We have been in ministry for 30 years and have very little results to show for it. Can you help us?” When I told them I believed I could and what they would have to do they each one refused. They would rather keep on with their activity than pay the price they needed to pay to see the results.

    In regard to the gospel – what good does it do if we give them the whole world and they lose their soul? One day we will have to answer if we have not proclaimed the truth.

    God bless David

  • David French

    Wanda, thank you for your faithful service and kind words.

  • sewinglady

    The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature. October 1985 General Conference (see lds.org)

    Ezra Taft Benson, Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Former President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

  • George Murrey

    I’m assuming you have never read the Bible or somebody drove you from the church you once attended. I should know on the first part. I lacked spirituality and faith. Life is not and never will be fair. Your idea that Jesus is some kind of myth or fairy tale is what others have told you. May I suggest buying the Archaeology of the Bible by James K Hoffmeier, it gives facts from Genesis through Revelation in regards to the religious side.. I just started reading Killing Jesus by Bill O’Rielly. Get away from the fray and nay sayers, read them and see where it leads you.