It is often believed that poorer people are worse behaved and therefore undesirable neighbors; and certainly enough, certain pathological behaviors are more common in the poor communities. This is used as an argument for zoning and government land use control [a form of social engineering] to keep them out of more affluent areas; and interestingly enough a recent study found that poorer boys [not girls] were often worse behaved if they lived in a mixed income community than if they lived in an entirely poor community! There are, of course, a lot of debates of the chicken-and-the-egg type; does poverty make people act this way, or does acting this way keep people poor, or quite possibly both?
I confess that during my twenties I was pretending to live on a limited income, and I would often stall on paying my medical bills [though I eventually paid them] and I was a believer in price controls until I read Gary North’s work How to How to Profit from the Coming Price Controls which outlined the bad effect of price controls. In practice, we did not return to the 1970s experiment in price controls. If I was really poor and unemployed, I might steal my food and be a squatter. I hope I would draw the line at stealing stuff to fence for cash.
Thinking about this more recently, I realized why the Orange County Rescue Mission’s sites are called Village of Hope, House of Hope, etc. Hope is one of the three Theological Virtues, along with Faith and Charitable Love, outlined in 1 Corinthians 13; not one of the Classical virtues of secular origin, which are Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage. But apart from Hope, it would make more sense for a poor person to live for the moment even if these choices are not helpful for his future, even downright dysfunctional. This is one reason why Christian agencies are so often much more successful with the poor.
The other thing I thought is this. If I am refraining from stealing food and if I’m paying my bills only because I’m in a comfortable situation, God is not impressed with my good behavior. My heart is still the same. He knows. And I get no credit for my ‘good behavior’ in His eyes if my ‘good behavior’ is because bad behavior is unnecessary in my comfortable situation.
There is a line in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that made it into the famous Broadway musical version of this play, My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle’s father declares, “Morals? I can’t afford ‘em, Guvnor!” The Gospel of Jesus is meant to be good news to the poor. It is not intended to be good news to those ‘poor’ who rejoice in their poverty as an excuse not to have morals. I think an important part of Jesus’ good news to the poor is the democratization of virtue. The Greeks thought that virtue could only really be cultivated by the citizen class, who had leisure time. The Jews thought that only a high degree of literacy, education, and Torah study could make them virtuous, and that the uneducated had little hope of virtue. Jesus doesn’t claim that anyone is perfectible, but He gives us all hope of not only His imputed righteousness [through faith in His blood] but of character improvement on earth, whether we are leisure class, working class, or underclass, educated or uneducated.
This does not mean that education is a bad thing. The Jews’ belief in education has greatly benefited them in many cultures, including ours. However, if an inner city gangster is given the kind of secular ‘education’ that we now value, one focused almost exclusively on economic empowerment, and retains the same heart, he will quite likely cease to be a physical danger to his neighbors, but nothing keeps him from becoming a white collar criminal. Only the Gospel or something like it can keep him from that fate. He needs Faith, Hope, and Charitable Love, and he’s not going to get these from a secular education system purely oriented to ‘economic empowerment’.