Taxing Citizens to Feed the Poor is not Christ’s Way

Source: Joshua Sherurcij
Source: Joshua Sherurcij (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promised to explain why taxing the nation heavily in order for the government to provide social services is not a good idea. I have already explained that it is not what Jesus taught. I observe that many churches and religious leaders try to edit Biblical teachings to make them say that God wants the government to do this sort of thing, but when I read the Bible and look for the plain meaning of the words, that is not the message I find.There is a very important reason that government is a poor choice to hand out social services. The reason is overhead. If people compared the accountability for good stewardship of government money to the way charitable foundations use their money, nobody would want to give the government any money at all. Every government project is top-heavy with administrative costs. I have always admired charities like the Heifer Project and Lutheran World Relief, because more than 90% of the money these charities receive actually goes to the services they provide. The people who run these charities do not receive lavish paychecks and benefits. They don’t spend fortunes on buildings and grounds. They believe that when somebody gives them a dollar, the donor wants to help feed the hungry and heal the sick. These charities demonstrate that it is possible to pay administrators and house the offices while still funneling the lion’s share of their revenues to people in need.

The government feels no such compunction. Civil service employees are paid on a scale most private citizens would envy, and their benefits are equally impressive. The pay and benefits are distributed according to paygrades that are consistent across the spectrum of all civil service work, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but it does mean that the mantra that government work should pay better than private work is enforced even in charitable endeavors. It is not my purpose to argue about how much a government employee should be paid. My purpose is to point out that when you give a dollar to a private charity, people who need the charitable services receive a lot more of that dollar than they receive when you give a tax dollar to the government.

A need to regulate further complicates and hampers charitable work. If I give money to a homeless person who solicits me outside the grocery store, I risk my money on a bet that the person is genuinely homeless and in need. I do it because Jesus taught me to take that risk. However, the government cannot and must not do that, due to the nature of government. If the government simply gives money to every person who shows up to ask for it, then we all are rightly outraged, because there are too many people who will ask for that money when they don’t need it. If I lose twenty dollars by giving it to a charlatan at the grocery store, that is no tragedy, and God can sort that problem out at his own perfect time. If the government loses thousands by paying unemployment benefits to a lottery winner, we all think that both parties to that transaction need to be punished, and there ought to be a law to prevent this from ever happening again.

The solution is for Congress to pass a law. We all know that few laws are ever about just one thing, and this means weeks and months of wrangling and negotiations in order to word the law or attach the amendment to some other law or attach amendment to this perfect law, and so forth. Having passed the law, the government program administrators must then write regulations to define how the law will be administered. Every form used by the program must be reviewed in order to assure that they collect the information required in a manner compliant with a lot of other laws and regulations about confidential information. Every employee must be retrained to interview, evaluate, report and approve or deny clients based on the new regulations. The new law may even direct the program to appoint a new officer, who will need new staff, which must be housed in new offices which need new furniture, and so it goes.

To tell the truth, nothing government does is ever done efficiently by the standards of common sense. Most citizens claim to want the government to use some common sense, but if the government did not write voluminous regulations and create voluminous forms, the government would not begin to be as acccountable as we all wish it were. Sadly, even with all the laws and regulations and forms and audits, government is still a high maintenance entity.

The other big reason government is not a good administrator of social services is that government is not kind. Government operates according to the law. When we think about the fact that none of us can live up to God’s law, and when we think of what the Pharisees did in an attempt to make it possible for people to do it, then we begin to see why government cannot be charitable. Government is more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus. Government laws used to give a “dole” to families in need. When it became apparent that many families included a healthy man who refused to work, government responded by saying no “dole” would be given if a husband/father lived in the home. The men targeted by this law were supposed to be motivated to get busy and get a job and take care of their families. The law, however, did nothing to provide that motivation. Laws do not motivate; laws regulate and irritate. No law can ever be a loving solution to problems inherent in human nature. The outcome of the law was not a rush to gainful employment by the targeted husbands and fathers. Instead, husbands/fathers abandoned families in order to make them eligible for a charitable “dole.” Federal Pharisees initiated the breakup of families, not the death of poverty. Poverty continued to thrive.

Government must have laws and regulations and policies, and it must administer in compliance with all those laws and regulations and policies. Government cannot operate on the standards of common sense, and it absolutely cannot be charitable. Every applicant for government services must be demonstrated to be eligible, and there can be no fudging over a penny too much or a man who can’t find work or any other little thing that charitable hearts could deal with.

Charity in the name of Jesus is certainly admonished to be wise as a serpent, but charity in the name of Jesus can also be harmless and actually charitable. Common sense, grace and love drive charity in the name of Jesus, not regulations, policies, and a hierarchy of administration from here to next year. We who claim the name of Christ commit to follow him and be like him. Christ is the one who healed ten lepers without asking them any questions or filling out any forms. Only one ever thanked him. Over and over as Christ healed crowds of people, he showed us that we are to serve and love our neighbors without creating administrative barriers that demean them. We are called by Christ to serve and love our neighbors and to build up our neighbors. Government simply cannot do that. If we are serious about helping people in poverty, we must be willing to risk helping a charlatan now and then. Never forget that Jesus loves people who are behaving badly just as much as he loves the innocent victims of poverty. In the name of Christ we can and must accept the risk of helping an unworthy person as an act of love and service. The government cannot do that, because that is not the mission of government. The government will never be the visible kingdom of God on earth.

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5 thoughts on “Taxing Citizens to Feed the Poor is not Christ’s Way”

  1. The constitution gives the legislature branch power to tax and provide for general welfare of country (art I, sec 8). We could argue about what this means, but by the process defined in constitution, this is settled by Supreme Court rulings, (art III), and therefore all the safety net programs we have are constitutional. (It’s an ongoing process and their constitutionality could be overturned. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) is under review.)

    The poor predate government safety net programs. Its because private charities haven’t done the job sufficiently that the government has entered. Look at history. Remember the 1930’s, etc. The safety net programs have never been popular. It’s perhaps because we recognize that they’re not really addressing the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is how can we guarantee secure, well-paying jobs for all American adults who want, but cannot find, them? It’s because we haven’t solved this problem, and I would argue, as its economic, (e.g. interstate commerce), this problem is under the purview of the federal (and state, local) government, that we need to keep safety net type programs in place.

    I agree with all your remaining points, and applaud your mission to see that other Christians give generously. We can work together towards a responsible reduction in government size.

    The Tea Party advocates reducing the deficit as the priority. According to Wikipedia, in 2012, we’re planning to take in with taxes about 2.5 trillion, and spend about 3.5 trillion (about 28% of total spending is defense); a 1 trillion deficit. Our GDP is about 15 trillion. This puts the federal government’s spending budget at 3.5/15 = 23%. This means we should all be able to pay about an average tax of 23% on the nation’s yearly wealth, and we’d meet our spending budget. We’re now effectively taxing the nation’s yearly wealth at about 17%. Romney and Buffet pay 15% (they make yearly millions). I for one pay about 30% in federal taxes (and make yearly significantly less than a million). If you’re worried about Joe the plumber, I’m a small businessperson who employs 7 others. I have no problem paying 30% taxes, and I don’t need corporate welfare to create jobs. I create jobs because it makes me money.

    Spending cuts of 1 trillion, (28% reduction), could get you there with great disruptions (job losses, unfed poor, with inevitable military cuts, job losses to our very best, and probably a recession). Alternately an effective tax rate of 23% would get us there with far less disruption (some capital flight). Perhaps we could compromise with 10% across the board reduction in spending, and new tax code with effective rate of 21%? This would address the immediate deficit problem, and from there we can work to responsibly to reduce both taxes and government size.

    Peace.

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    1. You actually make my point. I am trying to encourage followers of Christ to be Christ-like rather than advocate that non-followers be compelled by force of law to do what Christ’s followers often seem unwilling to do. If other people who are not followers of Christ need to advocate for legal charity, because the job is not finished, that is a whole different project.

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  2. I think I get your point. The Church will administer to the poor a bit more like Jesus intended (with almost an innocence, and a feeling God will sort out the cheaters), and government will be a bit more cold and business like. I don’t mind the later as it accomplishes the singular goal of feeding the poor. You’re trying to save souls, the approach needs to be a bit more nuanced.

    The government may be bloated (or could benefit from economy of scale, or likely, both), but that’s secondary, so let’s move past that.

    I’m all for churches doing charity, and I would be disappointed if they didn’t. But we should also acknowledge that churches can be helped by secular organizations (many NGO’s, but also the government). There’s a lot of needy out there we can keep on life support until you can reach them for soul saving guidance (if they choose).

    I found LWR’s budget, it doles out 37 million to the poor. Couldn’t find Heifer’s budget, but let’s assume similar size. That means we’re able to get about 80 million to the poor. Quite good. But the proposed Ryan government cuts for feeding the poor (in the USA) will be almost 200 billion/year (200,000 million, 2,500x more). And that doesn’t include healthcare support cuts.

    We might worry too much about how Jesus would do things. If I was in Nazareth and needed to be in Jerusalem, I’d drive (1.7 h). Walking is an option (1.3 days).

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    1. I certainly see your point about the amount of money the government proposes to spend or to cut or whatever. However, it is frequently pointed out that when the government leaves money in the hands of the citizens, there is more money for all the good things they want to do. Our citizens have always been generous. It is my firm belief that when free people retain their earnings, they support social services generously. As for government, I will always contend that government is less transparent and less faithful in stewardship of the money it receives than private charities are. So private charities would always be preferable agents for social services. Finally, there are many levels of government, and the best level for local services is the local government. I have no problem with a local government addressing a gap in private services, but I suspect that even then, it would be a better idea for someone in government to research and solicit private initiatives to deal with the problem. That would protect the services from all the political bickering that now clouds a national concern for the poor.
      Finally, I can state with absolute conviction that I am right that the Constitution did not authorize the federal government to engage in social services. Not Social Security. Not Medicare. Not AFDC. Not any of this. The federal government as defined by the Constitution does not have this role. The role of the federal government is to do the things that glue the union to gether and protect it from internal and external assault. All other powers and responsibilities reside with the people and with the states. That model is much more responsive to local, personal needs, so my political opinion is that the federal government should stay out of charities for that reason, if for no other.
      However, you say that church-run charities always have the goal of converting people, and you seem to imply (forgive me if I misconstrued your comment) that the reason churches help people is to make converts. I don’t understand Jesus’ teaching that way. When I read the words of Jesus, I hear a call to love and serve people without regard to the outcome. Period. I also hear a call to share his teachings, but loving service is not a carrot to induce someone to do my bidding. Loving service is human emulation of the love and grace Christ pours over us all. I believe that when people hear about Christ, who he is and what he does, they will certainly be attracted, but my love for people and service to people is an expression of my own faith, not a lure with a hook in it. People usually respond warmly to such love and service, but not all. Take Judas, for example. Still, if I am trying to be like Christ, I will share the good news with everyone, including you. If I am like Christ, I go on loving people who laugh at my good news and I go on loving people who report me to the speech or behavior police for sharing my good news. Christ transformed my earthly life and that is good news I can’t keep to myself.
      My objection to federal programs is that a) they are unconstitutional, and b) they waste profound amounts of money, and c) they are not charitable, and d) they don’t inspire or motivate anyone to do anything to have a better life. I object to government programs at most levels for reasons b, c, and d. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a safety net, which is the usual justification for all the b, c, and d, but I believe people were created to live happy, fulfilled lives, and I think anybody who really wants to help people will help them not only to fill their stomachs but also to set free the gifts and talents with which they were blessed at creation. Yes, I do believe each person is created by God for fulfillment in fellowship with him and in free development of unique personal gifts. A government program to dispense food will never lead anyone to do anything but return to the dispenser, a lot like a rat in a cage. People are created for a better life than that. You were. I was. We all were. That is my point.

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      1. I thought about our lengthy conversation, and I realized that in responding to your points, I had failed to reinforce my original proposition. I wandered. I apologize. All these points are legitimate topics, but they look different if you understand that my post was not, in itself, an attempt to stop the government from doing what it wants. Some of my responses make it obvious, of course, that I think the federal government has exceeded its legitimate role in society, but that issue was not my primary purpose for writing this post.
        My primary purpose was to help Christians realize that when we participate in any effort to get the government to perform social services, we are backing away from our own responsibilities. Christ never said we should try to force people who are not called to discipleship to be disciples. He said we should be the disciples. We should be like him. We should love and give and serve. He never said we should try to make other people do the acts of discipleship if they had not committed themselves to the relationship that calls for discipleship. When Christians say that the government should tax people heavily in order to perform social services, I feel that Christians are attempting to make the world into the kingdom of God even though a lot of the people caught up in the the current don’t want to go there. That is the big reason Christians ought to avoid trying to use the government to accomplish our charitable goals.
        If someone in government (not the federal government, for all the reasons I named before) believes that city government or even state government should do something toward a safety net for people, that is fine. However, when a group of pastors or bishops or some mission society lobbies for the government to tax people and pay for social services, I believe that they believe they are doing God’s work, but I don’t agree. Jesus never told his followers to ask the government for money or to ask the government to tax people to do his work. Jesus said that we, his followers, are to love and give and serve.
        I wanted you to understand that important point.

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