Biblically, there are two ways to alleviate poverty: giving and growing.
Psalm 41 declares, "Blessed is the one who considers the poor!" But to give, one must first have. Job was able to give generously to the poor because he was a man of means. Boaz could let Ruth glean in his field because he owned a thriving, productive estate. Joseph of Arimathea could donate a tomb for the Lord's burial because he had been making good use of his economic opportunities prior to that time.28 Margaret Thatcher once noted that, "...even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side."29
I hasten to add that God expects not only the moneyed, but also the poor themselves, to be givers. The Apostle Paul praises the churches in Macedonia for giving generously to the relief of suffering Christians in Jerusalem despite their own "extreme poverty" (2 Cor. 8:2). It is often reported that while America is a nation of generous givers, the working classes give far more freely than the wealthy.30
Simple almsgiving can be problematic, however. In the prosperous West, we are largely confused about who is poor and who is not. The biblical poor are those in terrible need. They are essentially helpless, often the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner—people without defenders and without the means to defend themselves and to provide for their most basic needs. When Job speaks of defending the poor, he mentions the widow, the fatherless, and those in danger of perishing from hunger and exposure. (Job 31:16-23) They are exposed to the wolves of society, powerful and unscrupulous people of means who would devour them for selfish gain. They are not people on the verge of canceling their cable TV.31 Paul counseled deacons to help only the genuine poor. "Honor widows who are truly widows" (I Tim. 5:3-14).
It is worth noting that in his remarks on caring for helpless widows, Paul makes no mention of the civil government. He issues no call for Christians to protest the "injustice" of the Roman government leaving the poor without food and work.
In giving to the destitute, givers should also make sure that their compassion is effective, and not a mere sop to the conscience that does unintentional harm. Indiscriminate giving to panhandlers encourages shameless fakes to take to the streets in great numbers for free money. As people become more generous in their handouts, one can expect begging to become more organized and exploitative.
In the film Slumdog Millionaire, a man burns the eyes of an orphan to make the boy's begging more lucrative. This happens in countries where almsgiving is common. In Albania, I saw a young gypsy man with no arms or legs set out shirtless in a busy square. Is it possible that he had been run over by train, and survived with only his torso? From what I was told, it is all too likely that someone maimed him as a child, perhaps a stepfather or captor, so that he would elicit greater sympathy and attract more generous giving. Charity must be wise.
While giving to the poor is an explicit command, the other means of providing for them, such as growing a business or growing the economy in general, are implied but nonetheless real. The Bible does not show us simply "haves" and "have-nots," with the kind-hearted haves doling out alms to the have-nots. Like life itself, the picture is more complex.
Employers and employees prosper together (John 4:36; I Cor. 9:9- 10), though the latter depend on the initiative of the former. After the famine passed, Boaz saw a great harvest, paid many people to help him reap, and left plenty behind for gleaners like Ruth. Even wicked Nabal, Abigail's appalling husband who was "very rich," shared his bounty with his shepherds and shearers (I Sam. 25).
Because employers are in a position to bless simply by virtue of being employers, God gives them moral instruction. They are to pay their workers on time (Deut. 24:15). They are also to pay a customary wage: "The laborer deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7). But it is not the employer's responsibility to fund all his employees into the middle class, regardless of their work. Job paid his servants generously, but he was limited by market constraints. They remained servants.
I once knew a fellow who claimed that he loved his neighbor when he bought stock in IBM. If that were the limit of his charitable efforts, he would not be living a recognizably Christian life. Nonetheless, he had a point. Not everyone who invests is acting in love, but you can wisely invest your money with your neighbor's good in mind. It is said that Ronald Reagan often gave to people in need, quietly writing a check to someone who wrote to him with a sad personal story. But he did far more for the poor by slashing marginal tax rates and freeing people to generate the longest period of economic growth in the twentieth century.