Yeah, we’ve seen just a huge influx of resources to create charter schools and to push more choice within our public school system. What people are maybe less familiar with is the role of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and ushering in the Common Core. The Gates Foundation got behind the idea of the Common Core in a big way and more than any single actor in U.S. education really made the Common Core happen. That’s an astonishing achievement for private philanthropy. You know, that a wealthy couple like Bill and Melinda Gates can, through giving a few hundred million dollars, shape what is being taught to students across the country really underscores the power of private philanthropy in this age in which we live.
It happens sometimes. A conservative friend will read something by someone like me – someone who suggests being more generous towards people living in poverty or someone who advocates for a universal basic income – and they’ll cite this fragment of a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians12 Thessalonians 3:10:
He who does not work, neither shall he eat.
It’s a popular bit of conservative ethics. Unfortunately, it’s also torn from its context and repeated without any reflection.
In this post, I’m going to look at this phrase and a few of the reasons why it’s wrong to use it to imply that government programs or charitable organizations should require people to work in order to receive help.
No One Means It
The most basic problem with how people use this verse is that no one actually means it. Everyone makes exceptions in the name of compassion. Nobody says that children must work. Or elderly people. Or sick people. Or disabled people. Everyone intuitively understands that work can’t be used as a criterion for help without considering the context.
At first, it might seem like there’s a simple solution: returning to something closer to the meaning of the original Greek, as seen in the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV translates the adage this way: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This changes the criterion to something more compassionate. It’s no longer that a person must actually work in order to have what they need to meet their most basic needs; she must only be willing to work.
But that interpretation has its own problem in the form of another exception. It’s an exception that gets made without thinking. No one applies this rule to the wealthy.
While people will cite this verse endlessly when talking about people who are receiving welfare or charitable aid, it is never used on the rare occasion when people talk about the idle rich. For example, if Jared Kushner quit his job today – such as it is – and chose to spend his life sitting around playing video games, no one would suggest that he should be denied food or kicked out of his home or lose any of the other things to which he has grown accustomed.
And that’s because what people seem to mean when they say, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is something closer to “he who does not pay, neither shall he eat.”
This is an important distinction. And use of this verse tends to obscure it.
On the one hand, when people use the phrase, they tend to mean that only people who can pay should eat. And they tend not to care about where the money came from. That money could come from good and honest work or from building supply chains that sacrifice children for profit. That money could come from a massive inheritance. That money could come from cheating and swindling. As long as the money is there, the specifics don’t matter.
On the other hand, by saying, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” people imply that work is the only source of money. The honest laborer, the trust fund child, and the swindler are all collapsed into the image of the person who works for a living. The use of the phrase ends up hiding what people seem to really mean by it.
The Other Side of the Work Requirement
But let’s suppose that people really do mean something like “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” or “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Let’s imagine that, outside of a few cases where people really truly cannot work, the people who use this phrase want to apply it to the poor and the rich alike.
There’s still a problem: if people have to work in order to eat, then there also have to be jobs for those people to do. It’s intuitively unfair to require people to work if there’s no opportunity.
Now, it’s easy to think that there is work available for anyone who wants it.
And, on a pure numbers game, that might be true. But the realities of employment and unemployment are complicated. People may be limited to the jobs for which they are qualified, to which they have reliable transportation, around which they can arrange other commitments, that are in their geographic area, and so on. And, of course, someone can be rejected from a job for any number of reasons: a criminal record, racism, sexism, and so on.
Someone looking for work can’t always just ‘find a job’. He has to find an employer that will hire him. And, in a market economy like ours, he has to find someone who will hire him at a wage that will let him buy the things he needs.
This is the core of the problem with work requirements generally, and with the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” in particular. Adding a work requirement to welfare or charity without also adding a robust employment program – not just job training, but actual employment opportunities – is nothing more than a way to refuse help to people in need.
Setting and Context
Of course, the actual letter to the Thessalonians wasn’t written in a market context where most people were privately employed and a few were relying on some form of welfare. It was written in the context of an early Christian sharing community. This was a community where people could have a reasonable expectation that they would not go hungry precisely because of the Christian emphasis on charity.
We can understand this better if we turn to another letter: 1 Timothy.
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the author tells the community about caring for “widows who are really widows.” The assumption is that women are financially dependent on men – their fathers, their husbands, their sons – and that women who do not have a man to rely on are particularly vulnerable. It is therefore the responsibility of the Christian community to care for those widows who do not have anyone to support them. The letter to Timothy notes that some people, particularly younger widows who might remarry, might take advantage of this sharing community. Therefore, the author believed, specific rules had to be created.
But 1 Timothy doesn’t just have rules for the poor or the widowed. It also has rules for the rich. Specifically, it directs them “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God,” and to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”21 Timothy 6:17-18, NRSV The poor can rely on the sharing community precisely because the rich have a moral obligation to share their wealth with them.
2 Thessalonians assumes the same sharing economy and the same demands placed on the rich. And, like 1 Timothy, the author imagines – in fact, has heard that – some people are taking advantage of that fact. The author also points to the reason that some people might be taking advantage: some people are expecting that Christ’s return is imminent.32 Thessalonians 2:1-3 After all, what would be the point in working if Jesus is about to return?
In my interpretation, the problem being addressed by 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 is that some people are taking advantage of the sharing community, and that at least some of those people are taking advantage because they are expecting the world to end at any moment. The passage – including the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” – isn’t about people who are in need of assistance because of personal misfortune or systematic exclusion. It’s about people who are part of a sharing community but who are not contributing to it.
“He who does not work, neither shall he eat” is not about our society. It’s not about a society where people are free – perhaps even expected – to make as much money as possible and use it for their own power, privilege, and prestige. It’s about a sharing community where the wealthy are expected to give and the poor have a right to their help. It’s about a society where work is available; where people have the real opportunity to contribute to their community. It’s about the church.
And that makes applying it to the world very difficult. To do that, we would have to use it when we talk about the idle rich as well as the unemployed poor. We would have to use it to justify why opportunities to work are so readily available. We would have to give the wealthy and powerful serious responsibilities to care for the least among us.
For those reasons, and more, people need to stop using the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” to foist work requirements on people in need.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||2 Thessalonians 3:10|
|2.||↑||1 Timothy 6:17-18, NRSV|
|3.||↑||2 Thessalonians 2:1-3|
A lot of popular writers on poverty make a distinction between situational poverty and generational poverty. According to these writers, situational poverty is poverty caused by a particular chance in their circumstances: a lost job, an unexpected medical bill, and so on. Generational poverty, meanwhile, is the poverty that exists when a single family has lived in (or been born into) poverty for at least two generations.
But, while this distinction between situational and generational poverty is popular, is it useful?
I don’t know the answer to that. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve grown skeptical. Here are three reasons why.
These Categories Leave People Out
If we took everyone who is living in situational poverty and everyone who is living in generational poverty, we would still have some people living in poverty who aren’t included in either group. For example, someone who has lived in poverty for twenty years doesn’t strike me as ‘situationally’ poor; but if they aren’t in the second generation of their family’s poverty, they aren’t generationally poor. Similarly, someone who is in the first generation of longterm familial poverty isn’t considered generationally poor. There is a gap here that this distinction doesn’t account for.
That wouldn’t be a problem if these were two categories in a larger and more comprehensive system. But they are asked to stand on their own, leaving some people in poverty unaccounted for. One problem with this is that it keeps us from accounting for a family becoming generationally poor. Without looking at people who aren’t situationally poor, but who aren’t yet part of families that are generationally poor, we can’t look at the transition into generational poverty.
These Categories Have Too Much Internal Variety
Related to the first, point, there is a lot of internal variety within situational and generational poverty. Someone who has lived in poverty for three months and someone who has lived in poverty for two years might both be situationally poor, but their circumstances are obviously different. Why don’t we account for differences that might exist between these subgroups.
Similarly, there are families where exactly two generations have lived in poverty and families who have lived in poverty for all of living memory. There are also families who have been poor as far into history as we can follow them. Again, these seem like substantial distinctions. There may be differences between the experience of poverty when someone’s grandparents were not poor (and, therefore, other family members might have wealth) and that experience when no known ancestor has had wealth.
When we divide poverty into these two broad categories, we miss those potentially revealing distinctions. Again, this might be solved by having a larger system in which these were just two super-categories, but that isn’t the case here. Instead, we’re asked to believe that diverse situations and experiences can be accounted for by just two categories.
These Categories Explain Too Much
This is the biggest problem I have: situational and generational poverty as asked to explain too much. A page at Portland State University – which adds ‘working class poverty’ to the mix, makes claims like:
- People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who benefited from education,” and
- People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who moved up or was respected in a job.”
Those are what we might call ‘bold claims’. Someone living in generational poverty might not have anyone in their family or neighborhood who has benefitted from education, but the idea that they would know no one who has seems unlikely: the people teaching their children, the physician at the urgent care clinic, and so on have benefitted from their education.
Of course, the most famous person who makes bold use of the distinction between situational and generational poverty is Ruby Payne, who manages to ascribe different cultures and linguistic traditions to the two groups. In fact, one of the key differences for her is that “the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living,” while “in situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.”1Ruby Payne et al, Bridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process Inc., 1999), Kindle Locations 699-700 These are all huge differences, especially considering that no differences within situational or generational poverty are noted.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether situational and generational poverty are useful categories or not. I’m skeptical for the reasons I listed, but I’m also not ready to just cast them aside.
Perhaps they would be useful as part of a bigger system, or as categories with sub-categories, or as part of a multi-axis system of considering poverty. As they stand however, they strike me as arbitrary categories that let people make quick, value-laden judgements (as Payne does).
There has to be something better.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ruby Payne et al, Bridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process Inc., 1999), Kindle Locations 699-700|
“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”
If you’re part of a small nonprofit organization that solicits gifts in multiple states, you’re probably a little familiar with multistate nonprofit registration. This is the requirement that nonprofit organizations that are based in one state and ask for gifts in another state have to register with the second state.
So, for example, an organization based in Davenport, Iowa, that sends a direct mail appeal across the Mississippi River to its neighbor, Rock Island, Illinois, must also register as a soliciting organization in Illinois.
Now, just so we have some clarity on this and don’t cause anyone to panic, a few notes. First, churches are often exempt from registration. So a congregation in Davenport that sends a pledge form to a member in Rock Island probably does not need to register. Second, an organization doesn’t need to register in order to receive gifts. If someone from Rock Island sends a gift to the nonprofit in Davenport, that doesn’t mean the organization in Davenport needs to register. The organization only needs to register if it solicits gifts in another state. Third, there’s no firm ruling on how this affects online solicitations like emails, social media, or a nice shiny donate button on a website.
Multistate registration is required by something like 38 states plus the District of Columbia. For organizations that solicit in just a couple of states, that might be no big deal. For organizations that solicit in a lot of states – organizations that have a national donor base – it is a tremendous challenge. Even though there is a movement for a unified registration form, some states haven’t agreed to it, and the states that have agreed to it often require additional forms that are state-specific. In addition to the forms, of course, there are supplemental materials that need to be collected and fees that need to be paid.
For a large organization, this might be feasible (though I won’t claim that it would be easy). A sizable accounting department, with help from the development office, might be able to take care of these registrations in the normal course of business. For small or mid-size organizations, however, this is a serious challenge.
To give an example, I know of an organization with a national donor base that could not handle the work of all of these registrations in house. There simple wasn’t the staff with the necessary expertise (not to mention time). They hired a very reputable company that handles this work for them. The total cost – the service fee to the company, the registration fees to states, and other fees – was about $10,000.
That represents less than one percent of that organization’s budget (it’s about the same amount they actually spend on direct mail appeals each year). It also represents children not fed, families not housed, people not clothed, case management not provided, homes not repaired, and dozens of other tasks not completed. For a smaller organization, with a national donor base, this would be debilitating.
I’m sure that the logic behind multistate registration is to protect unwary residents from being scammed by fake ‘charities’. I’m also suspect that some states see this as an opportunity to bring in a little revenue. But I am also absolutely sure that there is a better way to do this. For example, what if every organization that is registered with the IRS was exempt from these requirements? The IRS could share its list of legitimate organizations with the states. That would protect the unwary and remove a burden on nonprofits that would much rather use those registration fees to help people.
So, perhaps rather than a movement for a unified form that would be used as part of the package sent to some of the states, we need a real push for national — and only national — nonprofit registration.
Over at Coffeehouse Contemplative, Jeff Nelson has a parody that beat me to an issue I’ve been wanting to address: the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things I am apparently doing wrong: tying my shoes, adding milk to scrambled eggs, putting oil in pasta, peeling bananas, crossing out words, eating tic tacs, eating cupcakes, cutting bread, and putting rolls of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. “You’re doing it wrong,” has become the cute click-bait listicle way of saying “Here’s a different approach.”
And I like cute click-bait listicles. That’s probably another thing I’m doing wrong. But we live in a hypercritical culture. That’s especially true on the internet, where ‘well… actually’ has become a mantra.
So, I want to say just three, easy things:
You are doing things wrong. I am doing things wrong. It is a fact of human life that we make mistakes and we build bad habits. Some of the things we do wrong matter: we support unethical companies, we hurt other people, we make the world a little worse or we fail to make it a little better.
Different isn’t wrong. You can tie your shoes however you want. You can put oil in your pasta. You can cut bread from the top. There might be ways to do things that are different. There might be ways to do things that are better. But that doesn’t mean that they way you are doing things is wrong.
As long as it works and it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine. This is a key point. Do the things that work for you and don’t hurt anyone else. That’s fine. That’s good. But also seek to improve from there, because who wants to settle for fine?
In a world that is increasingly critical, we don’t need more lists of things we’re doing wrong. We need permission to be doing the best we can, and encouragement to do better tomorrow.