Letter describes skewed view of poverty

A recent letter addressing school lunch programs makes bold, simplistic assertions about human behavior and poverty that don’t align with science or reality. The causes and (effective) solutions for poverty, like other social issues, are complex. Simple analysis of these complex issues may feel good, but are not accurate on the aggregate level.

Stereotypes describing the poor as lazy, promiscuous, drug-abusing and reckless with their personal income are not supported by research. The vast majority of the poor in the U.S. are employed and half of Americans who qualify for government assistance refuse to receive it. Just as harmful is the belief that government intervention leads mostly to dependency and perpetual poverty. If this were true, why would poverty (and the concentration of wealth) dramatically increase or decrease following policies related thereto? Why would the increase in destructive behavior believed to be elicited by government intervention not be more prevalent in other developed nations where the government intervenes to a greater extent? Why do those states in the U.S. with less government intervention tend to have far higher rates of not only poverty, but almost every social problem?

Another important consideration is that most impoverished people are children and the vast majority of poor adults grew up in poor households. Considering this generational pattern, and MRI research showing that the stress associated with poverty and wealth inequality can severely disrupt normal brain functioning and learning processes, it is difficult to rationally and compassionately argue for greater personal responsibility on the part of the poor. Humans’ self-serving cognitive tendencies, combined with the high level of individualism in the U.S., form a wicked combination that fosters a misunderstanding of behavior resulting merely from individual choices. This framework for understanding behavior ignores the complex amalgam of social circumstances, physical characteristics and countless other factors that social science has already discovered as causal factors for human behavior.

When one considers biblical content that almost exclusively attributes poverty to injustice and oppression, it is perhaps most disconcerting that self-identified Christians voice such opinions in the public square. Since countless studies demonstrate that conservative evangelical Christians are more likely than other demographic groups to blame victims of almost every type, and this default mode of impugning the poor and vulnerable is more common among Christian conservatives, one must wonder: Which is the more fundamental component of this worldview, Christianity or conservatism?