What causes poverty? New study reveals what Americans and Christians believe
A new study may reveal a lack of compassion by a large percentage of Christians for those struggling in poverty. The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation joined forces to conduct a survey about people’s beliefs concerning the causes for poverty. The survey found that Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, are more likely to contribute poverty to poor choices than to unfortunate circumstances.
The study revealed that forty-six percent (46%) of Christians believe a lack of effort is generally to blame for poverty, compared to just twenty-nine percent (29%) of non-Christians. The difference was even greater among specific Christian groups. Fifty-three percent (53%) of white evangelical Christians blamed poor choices for poverty while forty-one percent (41%) blamed circumstances. Fifty-percent (50%) of Catholics blamed lack of effort while forty-five percent (45%) blamed circumstances.
Atheists and others who have no religious affiliation were more likely to blame poverty on circumstances. The margin there was sixty-five percent blaming circumstances and thirty-one percent blaming choices. The survey asked 1,686 American adults what they believed the cause for poverty was and gave them the option of choosing between poor choices and poor circumstances. The survey concluded that religion is a significant factor in how Americans perceive poverty. Evangelical Christians particularly were more likely than not to blame poverty on poor choices made by the poor person or poor family.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told the Washington Post, “There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality – often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures. The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.”
The Washington Post said the question wasn’t just an ethical question. It is also a political question and that the partisan difference was sharp. Among Democrats twenty-six percent (26%) blamed a lack of effort and seventy-two percent blamed circumstances while among Republicans sixty-three percent (63%) blamed a lack of effort or poor choices and thirty-two percent (32%) blamed poor circumstances. Race also mattered with thirty-two percent (32%) of Black Christians blaming lack of effort compared to sixty-four percent (64%) who blamed circumstances.
The report concluded “A statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes of poverty, but religious identity stands out as one of several important demographic factors.”
Theologians point out that many Christians base their views of the causes of poverty on New Testament passages such as II Thessalonians 3:10 which says “For even when we were with you we gave you this rule, that if a man did not work, neither shall he eat.”
They point out that this is in contrast to Jesus saying “The poor you will always have with you and you can help them anytime you want,” Mark 14:7 NIV.
The Washington Post reported that Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity concluded that much of the diverging point of view first came about at about the same time that fundamentalists first began rejecting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution or around the turn of the twentieth century. It was also about this time that the split between premillenialists and postmilleniallists occurred.
As the views of premillenialists became more conservative and postmillennialists became more liberal their views toward aiding the poor also changed. Postmillenialists feel it is their responsibility to work toward a better Earth while Premillenialists wanted to save as many souls as possible before the imminent end of the world and the unbearable tribulation period to come.
The premillenialists feel the world is already lost. Rhee said, “The world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse. … The betterment of society is very intangible. You don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to just focus on what is important — that is, salvation of the soul. That is, preach the gospel. Evangelism.”
Saving an individual’s soul by correcting his personal behavior will do him far more good than fixing an economic structure, if the world is about to end anyway, Rhee explained. “They are being compassionate.”
The belief that it is far better to save a person’s soul than to fix an economic structure in a world that is going to end anyway permeates Christian thinking. Mohler, a conservative evangelical, said, “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue. … Evangelicals are absolutely right to look at the personal dimensions. No apology there.”
Mohler told The Washington Post that Christians often fail to consider that poverty may be due to the sins of other more than the sins of the poor person. “I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”
Julisa Reed, 25, in rural Orangeburg County, S.C., told those taking the poll, “I believe it’s mostly lack of effort on their part. Because, I mean, it’s very seldom that people put forth great effort only to receive no type of opportunities.If you keep trying, you’ll get there. If you put in the effort, it comes.”
The report concluded by saying “Compared to those with no religion, the odds of white evangelicals saying a lack of effort causes poverty were 3.2 to 1.”
The poll was conducted from April 13 to May 1, 2017 and has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percent.