Briefly Noted: On Poverty Alleviation and Faith-Based Initiatives

In the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Keri Day tackles an important question about the efficacy and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in the United States.[1] Faith-Based Initiatives are, by definition, government sponsored programs that provide resources to religious organizations for the express purpose of combatting poverty and other social ills. Day’s analysis of these programs is very skeptical, since she sees them as being framed within a neoliberal economic perspective. Neoliberal economics emphasize free market principles while still expressing a significant concern for issues of social justice. Instead, Day approaches poverty and social justice from a womanist perspective, which is a version of contextual theology that she describes as being a progression beyond black liberation theology and feminist theology.[2]

Day begins her argument by explaining the playing field as seen from her perspective. She defines her womanist perspective and contrasts it to a position she labels as neoliberal. For Day, neoliberalism is incorrect because it “argues that merit, thrift, and hard work can bring socioeconomic success, which means that if one is poor, one must be indolent. In other words, poor individuals are the problem, not the system.”[3] This definition illustrates the greatest weakness of Day’s argument, which is that she does not fairly engage opposing ideas. Day’s representation of free market economics, such as those espoused by neoliberals, is a strawman. Notably, within the limited bibliography of her article, Day fails to engage with other scholars critical to her view.

This caricature of neoliberalism is essential for Day’s argument, since a major plank in her platform is to challenge “neoliberal hegemony” by “reconstituting history from the underside of life so that we may hear, see, and appreciate the voices of the oppressed.”[4] Day argues that there has been a fundamental shift in American views on poverty from colonial days until the present. She asserts that free market principles have shifted concern for poverty from a familial and community concern to one of “contrived and racist characteristics of the poor . . . . [T]his new paradigm located the problem of poverty in the lack of labor discipline, violations of work ethics, and lack of family discipline.”[5] This is contrasted to the modern “welfare state” which views poverty as a national, political problem.

Day’s chief objection to Faith-Based Initiatives is that they seek to reform people in order to combat poverty. She asserts, “In fact, within the idea of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives, poor mothers tend to be generally represented as a kind of moral recovery project for the state as well as churches.”[6] Day is reacting negatively to the perception that there is a connection between the type of behavior that often leads to single motherhood due to children born out of wedlock and poverty. Thus, viewing sin as a problem that must be dealt with in combatting poverty, which is an evidence of sin in the world, is anathema to Day.

Day’s proposed solution is changes in societal structures that involve increasing the minimum wage and creating more child care and health care programs.[7] This is because Day believes the government is responsible for caring for the daily physical needs of Americans.[8] Day’s views claim to affirm justice and a right view of the imago Dei, but they tend to undermine it because of an improper understanding of sin and the role of government.

In response to Day’s article, I limit myself to three comments. First, Day is certainly right to argue that individual sin cannot fully explain all societal poverty. She is correct to assert that concern for structural justice is central to Christian theology and ethics. On the other hand, Day’s rejection of the role of individual sin in perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and an over emphasis on the role of government in caring for physical needs of people brings into question the basis for, if not the fact of, her rejection of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, the question of the effectiveness and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in American society needs further evaluation, but the solution will not be found through Day’s womanist theology.

Second, I recommend Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,[9] as a helpful counterpoint to Day’s perspective. Olasky outlines the evolution of the American approach to poverty alleviation, arguing that the sort of high level approach that Day advocates is largely ineffective and, at the same time, tends to denigrate the imago Dei. While Olasky’s work should be read critically, his presentation should be at least considered.

Third, I wish to point out that American evangelicals need to work together to build healthy biblically-based models for understanding the roles of the government, the individual and mediating structures in alleviating poverty. We should ask questions such as: what is God’s creational design for government? How should government relate to other beings (individuals) and institutions (family, church, business), especially when it comes to alleviating poverty? When does the government wrongly overextend its God-intended authority such that the state is overinflated or tramples on the jurisdiction of other institutions? When is the government neglecting its role by overinflating the role of the individual? What should be the role of the institutions which mediate between the individual and the government (e.g. non-profit organizations, churches, charities)? Many of the questions that arise will not be answered by any sort of biblical proof-text, but instead must be answered by going beyond explicit biblical statements in order to explore larger patterns within the biblical narrative. In other words, we need creative, biblically-based proposals for promoting human flourishing in a 21st century Western democratic republic.

[1] Keri Day is an assistant professor of theological and social ethics and director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School at TCU.

[2] Keri Day, “Saving Black America? A Womanist Analysis of Faith-Based Initiatives,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33.1 (2013), 65–66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (2nd ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008).