More on Poverty and Depravity

by David French

Kathryn, thanks very much for your question. When I’ve written about poverty’s connection to depravity (see here and here, for example), I have not at all been arguing that depravity is a phenomenon unique to the poor. Indeed, as a Christian (of the Calvinist persuasion), I understand that no one is righteous. In fact, it’s not merely that we’re “not righteous” — it’s a fundamental tenet of orthodox Christianity that no single aspect of our lives is perfect. Put another way, “We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but we are completely affected by sin.”

I am arguing, however, that American poverty is quite closely linked to individual moral choices. In fact, those moral choices are far more important than any other factor in determining whether a person is — or will remain — poor. For example, we’ve long known that a vast gulf exists between single-parent poverty and marital poverty (36.5 percent of female-led single-parent families are poor compared with 6.4 percent of married two-parent families, according to this Heritage study), and we’re now learning that cohabitation is bad for kids as well. Cohabitation, divorce, and premarital sex are all choices (though I recognize it takes only one person to initiate a divorce), and when you throw in additional risk factors like addiction, criminality, or academic failure, you have a recipe for poverty.  

As Walter Russell Mead notes, it’s not as if the rich or middle class are immune to these behaviors, but they do — at least for a time — have a greater ability to absorb the costs of their mistakes. Very few, however, have the resources to absorb multiple, persistent behavioral errors, and divorce, drug use, sloth, or any number of other sins do create downward mobility (it’s common to see divorced parents trade in one large house for two smaller houses and two struggling households). Not everyone can keep up with the Kardashians.

On a personal note, for more than a decade I worked closely with mentoring programs for at-risk youth. Any journey into poverty-stricken environments (whether urban or rural, and I’ve worked in both) is quite often a journey into communities gripped by violence, drug abuse, and extreme sexual promiscuity. As I discussed on Patheos, the only real transformations I saw came not through well-intentioned private gifts or government programs but at the foot of the Cross. That’s not to say that only religious conversion works, but I do think fighting through and out of poverty requires a heart-level commitment.  

What do we do? It’s clear that hundreds of billions of dollars in transfer payments haven’t worked — except to deepen dependence, crush our national finances, and create a permanent underclass. But this shouldn’t cause us to despair. Since poverty in America is largely (though certainly not exclusively) behavior-based rather than status-based, there is an enormous amount of hope for any given individual. It’s incumbent upon us to reach out — move from our comfort zones to mentor, train, teach, and engage with our struggling fellow citizens. I’m inspired by Marcus and Michele Bachmann’s decision to take in 23 foster children. While it’s hard to believe that every single one of those relationships was or is perfect, there’s no doubt that she extended herself to serve others in a way that few ever will.  

In a different post, I outlined what I think is an immutable law of service: You can have a tiny amount of influence over a large number of people or a large amount of influence over a tiny number of people. When I flew into Iraq the night of Nov. 22, 2007, to start my service in Diyala Province, I knew that my influence over the war in Iraq would be very, very small. If something happened to me, it would have zero impact on the course of the war. (It was still the right thing to volunteer to serve, but I was under no illusions as to my importance.) At the same time, however, when I hold my adopted daughter — who was born into absolute poverty in Ethiopia — I know that I loom quite large in her life. 

Christ laid down his life to save a lost and sinful people. When we fail to follow His example, we have only our own depravity to blame.

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