The American attitude toward poverty
Part I of this series, I summarized the theory of Sigrun Kahl, who argues that European states have shaped their welfare policies in part because of the influence of Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist doctrines regarding poverty.
In Part II of this series, I explained how the social landscape of the Roman Empire shaped Catholicism’s doctrinal approach to poverty.
In Part III, I explained how the social landscape of early-modern Germany shaped Martin Luther’s theology on poverty.
In Part IV, I explained how Jean Calvin’s experience with temporal powers, his own as well as those of various European leaders, shaped his theology on poverty.
In Part V, I explained how the development of England’s poor laws reflected Calvin’s theology of poverty.
In this post I will explore American attitudes toward poverty and explain how they sharply diverged from Calvin’s teachings on the subject.
Those Puritans who left England for the colonies had only themselves to rely on for survival. It was God, not a government, who assisted their constant labor in the New World. In addition, they felt themselves under constant threat from Indians who they viewed as living lives of decadence and sloth similar to the Puritans’ Catholic enemies in Europe. The natives did not share the Puritan’s fixation with private property. Wealth, when it was measured, was understood as a tribe’s ability to feed all its members. This view was in sharp contrast to the Puritan’s view that wealth was an individual’s legal claim to land and movable goods.
Given the Calvinist heritage and the particular national mythology of the United States, it is no wonder that the richest nation in the world offers the least assistance to its poor. Despite how the majority of people in the United States remain in the social class they were born into, the American Dream promises riches to those who will work for them. The American Dream myth highlights the success of the few hardworking, creative, and lucky while overlooking the millions of men, women, and children for whom hard work was not enough to help them escape the poverty they were born into.
What is interesting is how America has retained Calvin’s association of poverty with immorality while dismissing Calvin’s teaching about the morality of work itself. In America, having riches without working for them is just as acceptable as gaining riches by working for them. In sharp contrast to Calvin’s teachings, idleness among the wealthy is celebrated in the United States. In addition, all poverty is equally despised. Little distinction is made between the working poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, children, and the elderly. Fault for their poverty is laid almost universally at their feet.
The majority of recipients of government assistance are children, the disabled, and the elderly. In times past, it was understood that these were groups of people who could not work to take care of themselves. However, there is a powerful, yet false, narrative in the United States that the majority of poor people are able-bodied adults who choose not to work and that government assistance allows them to live at a higher material level than those who do work. This false narrative of the ‘welfare queen’ also targets women, charging that they are over breeding and thus taxing the welfare system with impoverished children. The very contradiction in the ‘welfare queen’ meme, that the mother has not only her material needs met, but also her material wants such as a nice car, a big TV, and a cell phone, while her children lack clothing and food has not deterred those who promote it.
In addition in demonizing the poor, American attitudes regarding wealth and work diverge from Calvinist theology. The Puritans believed that work was a sacred act. It was not only a duty that allowed people to support themselves and their family so as not to become a burden on society. Work itself was sacred. It protected people from the sins of laziness, gluttony, gossip, drunkenness, and lust. Everyone worked in Puritan America, even young children.
However, the American Dream, as it is often portrayed today, promises a life of leisure – retirement at fifty, a vacation home or a boat, elaborate dinners and entertainments, and enough money to pass on to the next generation so that they can be idle at an earlier age. In America, the idle rich are held up as role models while the working poor are disparaged for their poverty.
The Calvinist approach to poverty has been modified in the United States to disqualify all poor people from assistance as well as to celebrate the idle rich as a standard for which all Americans should strive.