Can the Government Eliminate Poverty?

povertyRecently at my church the congregation was asked to pray that the president and Congress would succeed in eliminating poverty. I’ve heard such requests and probably prayed along similar lines before; but this time, the prayer troubled me, since it seemed to make several unjustifiable assumptions.

The first assumption is that it’s even possible for human beings, on their own, to “eliminate poverty.” Sure, we have ways of reducing poverty and creating wealth. And it’s always possible that God will work a miracle; but insofar as poverty is part of the fallen human condition—like sin, death, and disease—perhaps it’s presumptuous to think that anyone can literally eliminate it on this side of the kingdom of God.

But the more troubling, and unquestioned, assumption in the prayer is that it is within the competency and responsibility of the president and Congress to eliminate poverty. What’s the basis of that assumption? Certainly, there’s nothing in the Constitution that so much as suggests that this is one of the responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches of government. And there’s nothing in Scripture or Christian theology, so far as I can tell, to justify the assumption. We should pray that our public servants will act wisely and justly. But why think they have some decisive role to play in eliminating poverty?

To see how odd the assumption is, try replacing “president and Congress” with some other professions. Has anyone ever prayed that, say, bakers, firefighters, sheriffs, biologists, Supreme Court Justices, ophthalmologists, or first violins should succeed in eliminating poverty? Probably not, since we all know that eliminating poverty is not one of the core responsibilities of any of these professions. So why do we not flinch when such power is conferred on the president and Congress?

Of course, we should pray that the poor will have their needs met, and that poverty will diminish. But if we want our prayers to get beyond such vague generalizations, we need to think about how those things normally happen in the world. The only cure for material poverty is, obviously, wealth. So how is wealth created? Well, it takes place under the right cultural and institutional conditions—the rule of law, a minimally virtuous population, economic freedom, and so forth. While the government can help maintain the conditions under which wealth is created, wealth is actually created in the private sector, by entrepreneurs, inventors, and businesses.

Now, how many times have you heard someone pray that entrepreneurs might be free to exercise their creativity, that the government might allow businesses a hospitable environment in which to flourish, that engineers might create new technologies, or that agricultural scientists might develop more productive methods of cultivation? All of these things would actually reduce poverty, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard any prayers like that.

Image by Daquella manera

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