Why Government Charity Doesn’t Work

Ever since Lyndon Johnson, America has been waging a war on poverty. And every since the war on poverty, real poverty in America has been on the rise. Another point to consider: every time the function of a private organization that deals with people is taken over by the government, it inevitably fails —from welfare to public schools.

How can we explain these two facts? The answer lies buried in this paragraph:

There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous: It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households. -The New York Times

Why can’t the government effectively address poverty? Because poverty is as much about choices as it is about material wealth. The simple solution undertaken by the government in the past is education —but education in facts and figures won’t help. The problem isn’t knowledge, it’s people choosing the fun for today at the cost of progress tomorrow.

(Rich people, by the way, have this same problem, exhibited when they draw themselves into huge piles of debt, making essentially the same choice).

The only way to convince people they should choose tomorrow over today is to convince them that their lives have an intrinsic value that rises above the immediate pleasure of this moment —to take them into the transcendental. Or rather, to take them into the religious.

You’re never going to convince anyone who thinks they’re just a “grown up ape,” that their life has value beyond physical pleasure.

Hence poverty is a spiritual, rather than material, condition. But why not just have the government address the spiritual condition?

Because we’ve learned, through human history, that government, when it begins to enforce religion, becomes intolerant and destructive. We’ve learned this not only through the latter Crusades of the Catholic Church (the early Crusades were primarily defensive in nature), but also through the more recent Atheistic Crusades in Russia, China, and Cambodia. Government may be based on a religious worldview, but it may not enforce religious belief. Hence government cannot, by definition, address the spiritual problem at the heart of poverty —the belief that tomorrow is worth living for, that it’s worth trading off pleasure today for prosperity tomorrow, and that you are more than a hairless ape in clothes.

Because spiritual conditions can only be addressed by people who truly care about another person, who can show them the worth of being human. But who can you pay to care about others? Caring must come from inside, not outside; this is why every time governments take over something private individuals are doing, from schools to charity, the government solution fails.

These are limitations we cannot overcome no matter how clever we are, or how hard we try. They are limitations God has placed on government in the way he has designed human beings, and in the effects of the Fall. We can either respect these limits, or we can kick against the pricks; it’s our choice. Each time we look at the government to solve poverty, we are looking in the wrong place — government cannot, and will not ever be able to, resolve poverty, because poverty begins in the spirit, rather than in the money.

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