The Poverty Industry

Perverse incentives woven into the fabric of systems have the tendency to undermine positive outcomes and exacerbate abuses of the most well-intentioned programs. In his 2016 book, The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, Daniel L. Hatcher, a law professor, exposes the manifold perverse incentives of our various contemporary aid systems.

From the start, it should be clear that Hatcher is not an angry Republican bemoaning money wasted on the bottom end of the social scale. In fact, the book is published by New York University Press, which is not known for being a bastion of conservativism. Also, Hatcher especially highlights as many as Republicans who are abusing the intent of various Federal aid programs, while being much less intrusive and accusatory toward Democrats. Toward the end of the volume, he makes it clear that he is not calling for an end to the Federal programs or a reduction in their expenditures, but rather a deeper look at abuses that prevent the programs from achieving their ends.

There are several examples, but Hatcher spends a great deal of time walking through abuses that are endemic in the child protection systems. In an attempt to recoup funds, these government departments often confiscate property from their wards, seek ways to maximize streams of income from the Federal government, and fail to use the resultant funds for the benefit of the children. It becomes advantageous, given the current arrangement, for agents to terminate parental rights from poorer kids, refuse to place them, and lengthen adoption processes because the lower the income the child’s parents have, the larger the aid income stream the state can harvest.

Similarly, Hatcher highlights Medicaid programs in which states transfer large sums of money to hospitals to garner matching grants from the Federal government. The state “expenditures” are then funneled back into state coffers via bed taxes or ledger transfers. This means that the state actually does not spend the money that the Federal government was intended to match. It also means that the intended recipients of the redistribution—the poor—do not receive the intended benefit.


Clearly, Hatcher is highlighting abuses, which may be representative, but likely are not normative. Much of the social work done by agents of the state is heartbreaking and hard, so we should not read his book in a condemnatory manner. However, there are fundamental systemic flaws and, more significantly, failures of virtue in the people overseeing the systems.

The vast majority of the abuses Hatcher cites are, in fact, legal. If a hospital is owned by the government, then a ledger transfer is a legitimate means for it to transfer excess funds back to the parent government. However, when such transfers are examples of playing shell games with money, since money is fungible, then it undermines the sense of fair play and incentivizes everyone to misuse the system.

Some of the systemic failures Hatcher highlights can be remedied by law. For example, the practice of the state receiving child support on behalf of its wards and then attempting to collect debts from often poverty-stricken “dead beat dads” can lead to the permanent estrangement of fathers from their children and warrants for the arrest of men and women who simply cannot pay the demanded support. This is, in one sense, the criminalization of poverty, which may lead to parents in arrears on their support payments fleeing from officers and, perhaps, being shot repeatedly in the back. Welfare is an indication of a failure of our economic system, so at some point, the law should simply recognize that much of that money is sunk and stop trying to claw it back from the poor.

The greater problem, however, is an absence of virtue in society. (This is my conclusion, not Hatchers.) When legislators, governors, and administrators do legal, but unintended things to maximize their take from the Federal government it represents a failure of virtue. Economists and politicians can debate the relative merits of various social programs, but people should have the integrity not to attempt to game the system. Or, at least, if they do choose to milk the system for every advantage, they should pass those advantages on to the targeted recipient. Unfortunately, there is a too broad acceptance of the equivalence of legality with morality, which is intellectually sloppy and spiritually damaging.

Hatcher’s book is an important one for understanding some of the reasons the so-called war on poverty has been so ineffective. The problem of poverty is not going away, and it may be that systemic flaws and a lack of virtue are contributing as much as the oft-cited lack of funding.

More than Enough - A Review

Most of us live in this world unaware of how wealthy we are. We have much more than what we need. As people in the United States, or even much of the so-called developed world, we have more resources available than royalty in previous ages.


Lee Hull Moses seeks to address this condition and provide a Christian approach to living in our state of wealth. Her book, More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess is an attempt to navigate through the tangle ethics of a global economy, with a myriad of decisions each day. This book is focused on showing how Christians should live in light of their situation.

Moses is Senior Minister of the First Christian Church in Greensboro, NC. The congregation she leads is part of the left-leaning United Church of Christ. A liberal approach to Christianity significantly colors the volume, and helps to explain where she lands in so many ways.

The volume is comprised of thirteen chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion. In the first chapter, she begins by calling the reader to desire to live well as Christians; she wants her readers to delight in daily existence. Chapter Two offers the assertion that we (middle class Americans) have plenty and need to learn when to accept we have enough. The third chapter decries the complexity of living a simple life: it just isn’t as easy as the books usually suggest. Chapter Four is a lament for injustice in this world.

In Chapter Five, Moses uses two texts of Scripture to commend generosity and self-limitation to the reader. Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler represent this paradigm for her. The sixth chapter offers a confession of her own wastefulness and indulgences, like buying candy that she fears may have chocolate sourced by child slaves, and taking a vacation trip to Barcelona, Spain. Chapter Seven addresses the plague of stuff—too much of it, more of it than needed, and much of it never really appreciated. The eighth chapter speaks of the Sabbath, the theory of which Moses pulls from Walter Brueggemann, with a call to practice it in contemporary society.

The ninth chapter calls for people to pursue social justice, particularly to seek the good of neighbors. In Chapter Ten, Moses celebrates hope and finds energy for her pursuit of justice in the future reconciliation of all things. The eleventh chapter documents Moses’ work to increase government expenditures on social programs some see as necessary to bring about justice. Chapter Twelve calls the reader to delight in the good things in life, which is about where the volume began. In the thirteenth chapter, Moses discusses participation in Christianity—particularly the mainline denomination—and finding continuity and future meaning related to her God’s goodness. The conclusion ends with plaintively, with a statement that there is good and bad in the world, but she hopes it gets better.

There are several strengths to this volume. First, Moses avoids the trap of idealism all too common with volumes on the topic of social justice and excessive wealth. She recognizes that sometimes we make decisions that are considered by some to be less than good because we don’t have time to research more, drive farther for a product, or simply walk instead of driving. By including a confession of her own failings and the sometimes murkiness of her own decisions, Moses captures the complexity of life in our contemporary world. This makes he volume more convincing than some advocates of a certain version of social justice.

Second, Moses recognizes the very apparent reality that the United States is awash in wealth. Much of the perceived financial pressure middle class families feel is self-caused, as they pursue a lifestyle that is just a little beyond their means. Life really is more delightful if we desire less and delight in what we have. Additionally, her assertion that Christians should be exemplars for others living in contentedness on less than others is biblically sound.

Despite these strengths, Moses’ approach has some deficiencies. The most striking is the absence of a real gospel, of propitiation, of actual forgiveness of sin. Moses does define sin in the volume, but she describes it as human action that interrupts to flow of God’s love rather than an offense against a holy God. (52) The deepest weakness of this volume is that Moses senses her own guilt, but does not seem to understand that the solution to the guilt is not marching in the state capitol or buying so-called fair trade products, but in throwing herself on the mercy of God and receiving relief from her guilt through Christ. Instead of building her faith on the completed work of Jesus Christ, Moses claims, “The faith we affirm is built on the hope of a future reconciliation, a promise that the world will be made whole.” (97) This is vastly different than Paul’s claim that the resurrection is of first importance. We have to have the resurrection before we can have that future reconciliation.

The missing gospel is due as much to the absence of a real, personal God through the volume. It appears that for Moses the most significant relationships on earth are those between her and other humans. In fact, the entire volume reflects an attempt at self-justification by attempting to mitigate human suffering. Moses puts herself at the absolute center of her Christian experience, and seems to believe others should view themselves as the center of their own. Therefore, she does not ask whether what she does pleases an almighty, holy, personal God. Rather, she asks whether she’s done enough to assuage her guilty feelings about her wealth and privilege. The book is built on a foundation of what appears to be moral therapeutic deism.

The efforts Moses suggests to bring about equality of outcomes tend to be built on growing the government and forcefully redistributing wealth. Moses claims that the government’s role is to “make sure nobody gets left out or left behind.” This is a far cry from pursuing justice, which is what Scripture repeatedly affirms as the role of government. By calling the government to enforce equality, Moses is asking it to do something that it simply cannot do in concert with pursuing justice.

In addition to a questionable definition of government, Moses also falls prey to the popular myth of a zero-sum economics. She views her own consumption as morally dubious because she sees whatever she uses as taking away from others. This approach to economics is common, but is certainly not universally accepted. It is also undermined by the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in poverty is declining, contrary to her assertion that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” (43) While there is too much poverty in the world, Moses fails to recognize the vast improvements in human welfare that have been made possible very recently, and that many who own nearly nothing in this world’s goods are among the most wealthy.

This book holds out a great deal of promise. There is too much injustice in this world. There are structural biases in our nation that need to be addressed. Many times companies and politicians are motivated by selfish gain rather than the common good. Individuals and families waste too many resources and ignore too much evil in this world. The topic is a worthy topic.

However, Moses’ approach is unsuccessful because it lacks the potency of the gospel, which motivates the regenerate to do justice, and love mercy in this world. It is the gospel that should inspire Christians in the West to work toward economic systems that recognize the goodness of human contributions and the justice of protecting private property. It is the holiness of God that should enflame the hearts of the Church to action. What Moses offers is a motivation built on a feeling of sadness due to personal guilt. Thank God that he provided a way for so much more through the cross.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Should Christians Pay Taxes?

As the ominous tax day approaches, the ethics of paying taxes seems like a timely topic. What should Christians think about paying taxes? Should we pay taxes if our government is doing things with the money we find morally objectionable? These are questions of growing significance.

Fortunately Scripture is not silent on this matter, and it provides us clear answers to the ethical questions about paying taxes.  Most helpful is the account of Jesus paying taxes, which is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matt 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:19–26), but there are other portions of Scripture in play, as well.

In the account of Mark 12:13–17, the Pharisees are attempting to trip Jesus up by questioning him about paying taxes to their religiously and socially hostile government. According to New Testament scholar Robert Stein, by asking this question, the Pharisees are putting Jesus in a dilemma. “If he answers yes, he will lose favor with the people, for they despise the Roman taxation. If he answers no, he will be advocating rebellion against Rome and force the Roman authorities to take immediate action against him.”[1] Jesus evades the religious leaders’ trap by demonstrating that their acceptance of the good provided by the Roman government, as evidenced by their possession of the coin which Jesus uses as an illustration, obliges them to pay taxes when they are required.[2]

The Romans had a history of oppression, including the violent suppression of a revolt in A.D. 6, which was started in reaction by the same tax in question in this passage.[3] Paying the tax was offensive to the people of Israel because the Roman tribute was used to fund their oppressor; the occupying nation who had committed the social and religious atrocity of killing worshippers in the process of performing their sacrifices (Luke 13:1) was being supported by this taxation. A radical faction of the people of Israel, the Zealots, would not pay the tax because it represented Caesar’s unjust rule over the nation.[4] Even among those who paid the tax, there was likely a deep seated resentment at the obligation to support their oppressors.

Jesus’ response to the question was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, ESV) In other words, he was telling them to pay the tax in recognition of their obligation as subjects (not even citizens) of the Roman Empire. This message is consistent with Paul’s admonition to Romans to “Pay to all what is owed them,” including “taxes to whom taxes are owed.”  (Rom 13:7) It is also in line with Peter’s instructions to submit to authorities, including governments. (1 Pet 2:13)

We should keep in mind as we read these instructions in Scripture that the government that Jesus, Paul and Peter were subjected to was not friendly to godliness. These admonitions were written more than two centuries before the Roman government became friendly to Christianity, through Emperor Constantine’s public conversion. In contrast, all three men who commanded submission to the government died at the hands of the government.

So, the answer to the original questions about paying taxes when the government is misusing the money to support evil, even our own persecution, is that even then the payment is required. This is not, however, the end of the question.

In the United States in particular, but really in any democratically organized nation, citizens have a function in determining the use and appropriation of government funds. At the national level in our form of democracy, the input of the citizens in taxation consists of election of representatives and advocacy for just policies. At lower levels of government, particularly the local level, citizens have the right to directly vote on tax levies and municipal budgets. Submission to government by paying taxes does not rule out responsible advocacy to see tax policies changed.

Our submission to government is limited by our submission to God. In our obedience to the government, Calvin writes, we “must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject.”[5] However, based on the examples provided by Peter, Paul, and Jesus, paying taxes to an unpopular, pagan, and violent government does not result in sin.

Here are three conclusions we can draw from this discussion as tax season approaches and as political debates over the rate of taxation and use of appropriated funds continues:

1.      Everyone should pay their taxes in accordance with the laws of the land. Objecting to policies established by the government or the use of the government funds does not, according to Scripture, relieve the Christian of the duty to pay taxes. However, this does not mean that paying as much as possible in taxes is ethically required; using exemptions, deductions and credits in the tax code to reduce your tax bill is consistent with good stewardship.

2.      Participate in the political processes of the land to promote just uses of taxes.  Since we live in a context in which active engagement in the political processes is permitted under the law, we should be engaged in advocacy for uses of tax monies consistent with the Moral Law. In other words, we should politically resist attempts to use government funds to promote vices or punish virtues. This is inconsistent with the biblically recognized role of government, which is to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Pet 2:14, ESV).

3.      Be active in advocating for just forms of taxation. Again, our privilege in living in a democratically organized context gives us the ability to engage in open discussion and political activism regarding the tax code itself. We have to pay our taxes, but if we can change the tax code to make it more just, then that reflects submission to the government, as well. Reasonable, legal means of advocacy for changes to the law in order to promote the common good are well within the ethical bounds for Christians. We should work for laws that are just toward rich and poor alike, and that allow the government to punish evil and praise the good.

[1] Robert Stein, Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008), 542.

[2] Stein, Mark, 545–46.

[3] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 465

[4] William L. Lane, Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1974), 423.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.20.32.