As a society, we have a tendency to avoid the symptoms of poverty. Advertisements about starving children make many of us feel uneasy, but when asked for some spare change on the street, we choose to walk briskly past the call for help. When we rarely stop to confront the issue of poverty face-to-face, we all attribute it to different causes, according to our personal beliefs and experiences. Some people believe that individual failings have led to poverty while others believe that uncontrollable external factors drove people into poverty. Seeing as the truth probably lies somewhere between these two arguments, the decision on which factor leads to poverty boils down to individual perspectives on present-day society and the responsibility of the individual.
A recent survey conducted by the Washington Post indicated that amongst most Americans, religious identity has a significant influence on one’s perspective on the causes of poverty. Specifically, Christians—especially white evangelical Christians—are more likely to view poverty as a result of individual failings.
You might think, “it’s the wealthy conservatives again,” but this statement is only partially true. The more privileged Christians, or those who have the financial ability to believe, come from a wealthier, more stable background. Distant from poverty, they are less likely to have encountered a lack of government assistance when they need it, workplace discrimination, feelings of powerlessness, and more of the problems that less privileged Americans confront. With this lack of direct experience comes a lack of sympathy for the poor, and in a “smooth-sailing” Christian’s point of view, poverty is simply indicative of a lack of effort.
But even the Christians who do not live privileged lives can be inclined to blame individual failures for poverty. Their views are deeply rooted in the Christian narrative. Christians love a complete narrative, especially the ones that encourage good and punish the evil. This narrative contains multiple parts: the absolute god, a favorable result for the believers, and the benevolent church.
From the Christian perspective, God is the standard of life. Some Christians believe that after death, those who haven’t sinned “too much” will reach salvation, while the non-believers will not. A destined future based on one’s actions leads one to believe that everyone eventually gets what they deserve. Such belief is manifested in the educational values of Christianity. Having been a Catholic during my childhood, I was expected to do active, altruistic good beyond the requirements of the law, and strict work habits were just one of the expectations. I still believe that only after tremendous effort can one expect to achieve success. However, the belief that everyone gets what they deserve often falls short of reality, due to the bias of humans to seek validation of their beliefs by applying real-life examples. Taking poverty as a form of God-bestowed failure, Christians squeeze poverty into their narrative by saying the poor didn’t work hard enough to improve their situation.
In this narrative, favorable results for believers follow. Especially if a Christian is surrounded by fellow successful Christians, their everyday lives reinforce the belief in God by validating the cause-and-effect relationship of Christian success and failures. Consequently, they consider failure as a symbol of non-Christian life and poverty as a sign of individual failings. In fact, white Christians, who are much more likely to be wealthier than their nonwhite counterparts, are much more likely to attribute poverty to lack of effort.
The benevolent image of the church is also part of this narrative. Countless fictions and nonfiction, including the Bible itself, depict the church as a haven for the desperate. The typical Christian story ends with the homeless finding shelter and stability within Christianity and the church. Thus, these types of stories further separate the poor from Christianity in the minds of Christians.
When most Yalies hear this question of who we should blame for one’s own poverty, most will say poverty is a result of unfortunate circumstances. There is obviously no right answer, but is having sympathy for the poor and giving them the benefit of the doubt morally correct?
If you take a pessimistic approach to the question, unconditional sympathy towards the poor can create a moral hazard in society. If all poverty is to be blamed on unfortunate circumstances, the government will implement measures to make sure no one struggles due to unwarranted poverty. With such a strong “safety net,” many might lose motivation to be a productive individual.
Even so, blaming an individual for being poor can threaten morality by denying the principle of equality. Assigning blame to the individual as the cause of poverty results in neglecting the other influences that may have caused this failure. As a result, people’s ignorance grows, towards the various social issues that create inequality in chances of success. Indeed, the excessive pursuit of “equality” can create negative repercussions. However, denying the pursuit of equality at all is far more immoral.
It is quite ironic that Christianity, which emphasizes helping the needy, produces believers that choose to blame the individual over the society for their poverty. In order to not fall victim to this immoral bias, Christians should abandon this narrative of their ideal world in which they are the protagonists and the poor the antagonists.