John C. Drew, Ph.D.

Religious Social Justice Advocates Often Have No Idea What Really Causes Poverty – There, I Said It

Posted on March 27 2010 6:00 am
John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist who has taught American government and public policy at a few of our nation's formerly prestigious institutions.
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Earlier this month, Glenn Beck of Fox and Jim Wallis of Sojourners crossed swords over the topic of social justice and the Bible. Beck got things started on his radio show when he said,

“I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words…If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish.”

Wallis, however, really frightened me with his effort to twist the Christian faith to promote cold, anti-capitalist propaganda.

“Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck,” Wallis proclaimed. “What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show. When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor you don’t want to hear about economic justice.”

I’m thankful Glenn Beck is calling attention to something I have found disturbing about the Christian churches I have attended over the years – a tendency to swap socially accepted ideas that the rich allow poverty to exist for selfish reasons for contemporary social science perspectives, perspectives that trace poverty to individual or family-level variables including child labor, lack of schooling, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, failure to save and invest, inappropriate single-parenting and so on.

I was flabbergasted back in 2005 when my Southern Baptist church signed on to the famous ONE Campaign, a massive media blitz which had the goal of changing government policies to save lives in Africa. The group included a coalition of dopey celebrities and august religious leaders such as Live 8’s Bob Geldof, U2’s Bono, Kanye West, Rick Warren and Pat Robertson.

They endorsed policies that – from the perspective of a political economist – would lead to increased poverty through: 1) doubling financial aid sent to the world’s poorest countries, 2) debt cancellation for the poorest nations, and 3) reform of trade laws so poor nations are not shut out of global markets.

As a political scientist, I found this whole “social justice” theme –  soak the rich – appalling and grossly ignorant of unintended consequences. As we saw in the case of welfare reform in the U.S., public subsidization of foolish decisions takes away the honor and prestige of those who practice personal responsibility. Even worse, social justice advocates distract our attention from the real changes needed to end global poverty.

In my view, for example, I think efforts to abolish child labor and enforce compulsory schooling in America and Europe have been infinitely more successful in ending poverty and promoting economic development than any totalitarian scheme of redistribution. This is because poor parents traditionally use child labor as a primitive form of social security, disability insurance and free maid service. Although poor parents temporarily benefit from the exploitation of their children’s labor, they do so at a profound cost to their children’s education, intellectual development and future earning power.

The incentives for poor parents to exploit child labor is the reason why democracy, child labor, illiteracy and unremitting poverty go hand-in-hand in places like India and the Philippines. In contrast, Vietnam and China cracked down on child labor and have experienced striking and immediate improvements in economic prosperity.

Our contemporary view that parents should support their children is turned upside down so much in other developing countries that poor parents routinely seek to profit from their offspring by selling them into sexual slavery or work camps. In some backward nations, child labor is so freely available that parents inefficiently misuse a child’s mind by applying their unlimited human potential to the mundane task of carrying water.

Instead of attacking the morals of wealthy countries, opponents of global poverty should be focused on eradicating primitive indigenous practices that shock our conscience. Ideally, we should use the power of religious faith to modernize cultures that still use little children as human water pipes, personal servants, agricultural robots and sexual slaves. Glenn Beck reminds me “social justice” advocates often demand international, socialist redistribution to fix problems that could be more easily and efficiently solved with inexpensive condoms and strictly enforced child labor and compulsory schooling laws.

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