Monday, August 22, 2011

Wealth Poverty and the Role of Government

Over at Homebrewed Theolgoy last week there was a post on this report by the Heritage Foundation, which questions the Federal definition of poverty, because poverty should be limited to those who can't provide at all for the necessities of life for themselves and their families. Warren Buffett also wrote a piece last week calling for more taxes for himself and the wealthiest Americans. Today on NPR there was this discussion on Welfare 15 years after Clinton signed into law a major overhaul of the welfare system. And also today Harvey Golub has a rebutal to Warren Buffett's piece saying he pays plenty in taxes thank you very much.

There are a flurry of claims and counter claims here. There are statistics, some very disturbing like the amount of wealth held be smaller and smaller percentage of Americans, and yet Harvey Golub claims he still pays 80% to 90% of his income to some form of taxation.

There are I competing assumptions and presuppositions hidden in all of this.  On the one hand there are those that simply assume that it is the role of Government to provide for and take care of the poor, ie the Nation as a whole through the operations of the State. There is the assumption that money I earn is mine and most if not all of it should be at my disposal to do with it as I see fit or desire.  Taxation itself flies in the face of this, but one can of course argue that an entity like a nation and a government creates the stability necessary to be able to live and work without being robbed and ensuring agreed upon standards of business and law etc.  So one pays through taxation into this stability that allows one to earn money.  A government could care about the poor and provide for them to further ensure said stability.  By this view though there may be reason to limit aid to poor, if it is seen that this aid keeps people who should be in the workforce from entering it.  This was one reason given for the Clinton Welfare Reform.   But what about when there isn't a robust economy and there are fewer jobs than there are people who want to work?  But should everyone be in the workforce?  and might the Government have an interest in supporting people who are doing work that doesn't earn them the money they need to live on?  But why should those who are working and/or in positions to earn vasts amounts of wealth through taxes and the State support those whose life work does not earn them a living? Or more to the point should this form of support come from other segments of society than the State?

Unfortunately our discussion on these issues tends to either be Statist (or State collectivist in some fashion) or individualist and opportunist.  Also, these discussion divide the world up between Employers (the wealthy) and the employed (everybody else).  We seem to  be unable to conceive making a living that doesn't involve either making money off other people or receiving a paycheck from those who are making money through being employed.  Granted that is what we are dealing with largely, but few in my experience find this situation ultimately fulfilling.

This is rambling, because I'm attempting to get at something that is obscured.  There is a tendency among Christians both liberal and conservative when talking to the Middle Classes in comparison to the rest of the world that they are incredibly wealthy (granted liberals and conservatives say this to elicit differing responses, for liberals it is to drum up support for the State taking care of the poor, and for conservatives it is to drum up donations to help alleviate poverty).   But (and this was my own reaction to the Heritage Foundation report) when someone suggests that maybe most poor in this country are in comparison to those who can't provide for the necessities of life quite well off, it is offensive.  Eugene Cho today is talking about downward mobility and simplicity. He has a point, but if he can ask and continually ask what is needed to live in our context as a pastor and someone of the Middle Class (?), why is it wrong to ask about at what point should the government step in and provide aid to people?

And yet I can't help but think that when you ask "Well if their poor, why to they or their children have X." this is asked from a place of privilege and out of  a resentment based upon an assumption that the poor are poor because its their own fault.  People are wealthy not on the backs of others but because of their hard work.  But what if this isn't either or.  What if both are actually true?  And what if hard work isn't always rewarded and what if welfare does at times reward irresponsibility?

I also wonder if as much effort and energy went into attempting to reform the current system and funnel peoples greed into altruistic paths through the bureaucracy of the State went into people seeking to create alternative ways of being and living if we'd find that we don't need solutions to poverty just alternative ways of living.

Or to put it another way: I'm not convinced any longer that biblical and eccelsial teaching on care for the poor  is about getting any particular state to so care for the poor.  Rather it is the people of God, those gathered out of the nations who are to be a light to the nations, showing forth an alternative to the ways of the world and the realms humans continually create in their own image.  Just a thought as we rightly wrestle with wealth, poverty and the role of government.