Deserving vs undeserving poor – what the Bible says

A few days after the government’s benefits cap defeat in the Lords, mainly thanks to the Lords Spiritual, the story still rumbles on.  Top of the bill yesterday was former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey’s front page piece in the Daily Mail.  As I was researching for my article on Monday, I spent a good amount of time going through my Bible and trying to see what it had to say on the matter.  I didn’t find anything specific that I wanted to use, but it did bring into focus some issues to do with poverty and our attitude to it.

Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, wrote an article in the Guardian earlier this month assessing how William Beveridge would view the welfare state in its current form.  For those of us too young to remember, Beveridge produced the 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services (known as the Beveridge Report) which served as the basis for this country’s welfare state.  Byrne says:

Beveridge’s system was built on the idea of full employment. For him, “idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people without work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits. He would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.

Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt. He wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too. He would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job. He would have worried about the ways that his system had skewed social behaviour because he intended benefits to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle. He never foresaw unearned support as desirable.

Liam Byrne is clearly differentiating between what are commonly termed the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; those who are unable to provide for themselves, for whatever reason, and those who choose not to.  I have to tread carefully here as these terms can be used in an inflammatory or degrading way and that is not my intention.

The Bible has plenty to say on how we should treat the poor among us:

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. (Deuteronomy 15:7)

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,  I will now arise,” says the LORD.  “I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Psalm 12:5)

I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor  and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12)

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,  but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Proverbs 14:31)

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Throughout the Bible there is a running thread describing God’s compassion for the poor and needy and his desire to see that they are treated with justice and mercy.Christians should naturally share God’s heart for the poor.  There is, however, another message that is less well known that the Bible also speaks up about:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!  It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?  When will you get up from your sleep?  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11)

Lazy hands make for poverty,  but diligent hands bring wealth. (Proverbs 10:4)

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.  We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.  (2 Thessalonians 3:7-13)

Whilst God cares passionately about the poor, the Bible speaks out against those who do not make the effort to look after themselves.  It uses terms such as ‘idle’, ‘lazy’ and ‘sluggard’.  I don’t see how you can place these definitions on those who are ill, disabled or trying to make do in difficult circumstances and I don’t believe the Bible is aiming these comments at such people.  Christians should always look to live the way God wants us to including the way we approach work.  I am sure too that he wants us to challenge the lifestyles of those who look to live off the generosity of others without good reason.

Probably the harshest words regarding this matter come from Jesus himself.  In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) the master produces a scathing verbal attack on the servant who buried his talent and waste the opportunity to do anything with it.  The consequences for the servant are dire.

Over the years our welfare state has grown increasingly complex and some of its original aims appear to have been lost along the way.  With all the changes taking place in our nation, now is as good a time as ever to reconsider how our government supports those in need.  We need to pray for our politicians that they make wise decisions with regard to the benefits system changes currently being planned to make sure they deliver fairness, and support to those who truly need it.

Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Bible, Poverty

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5 replies

  1. A good discussion here. But it is important to understand 2 Thessalonians 3:10 properly. KJV has “… if any would not work, neither should he eat”. I have seen that paraphrased as “if anyone doesn’t work, he should not eat”. But that is not what the Greek meant, and probably not what the KJV English meant, with its now archaic meaning of “would”. The Greek clearly has a verb there meaning “be willing”. And so the NIV which you quote is correct: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” – or better still with “Anyone” as this is not about some specific individual. This is about those who make no attempt to earn a living, and presumably without good reason such as sickness, disability, or being a single parent. So this really is a matter of the undeserving poor.

    But there are other matters to consider before forcing these undeserving poor back to work. Very likely many of them couldn’t get jobs even if they did look seriously. There is a shortage of jobs, and people who have been unemployed long term, even if they acquire the right attitude, don’t have the skills and experience that are in demand. That’s basically why successive governments’ attempts to get these people off benefit have had little success.

    • Peter, thank you for the exegesis – really helpful. Your biblical understanding is impressive and I’m glad it backs up what I said.

      How we get the ‘undeserving poor’ into work is a big complex issue. As you say, this is a terrible time to be looking for employment. The key to seeing change in these individuals’ lives is them finding the desire and motivation to do something better. Easily said, but very hard to achieve. Without a change of heart and outlook it will only be an uphill battle. This is one of those areas I cannot see governments making any great progress, whatever they do. To me it is more of a spiritual battle that needs an intervention by God into this nation, to turn hearts and minds back to His ways. I believe this is a big subject for prayer and intercession and it’s why I’m so keen to promote prayer initiatives such as Kingdom Come 2012.

  2. Indeed, motivation is a big factor. I deliberately left it out of my comment as my point was that even if people are willing and motivated to work (and so out of the biblical “should not eat” category) there is very little work available for them – which of course immediately demotivates them. Yes, indeed this is a big spiritual battle, for our nation and for many others.

  3. Not only benefit totals need addressing- also issues of undue complexity. Why would a person take a short term job- only to be faced a couple of weeks later with the enormous task of reapplying for benefit, and the potential gap in income flow this creates? Even the administration of something as neccessary as CRB checks- waiting for the correct documentation can add several months to a job being offered and taken up.

    Then again, when did we as a society decide that family duties do not consistute work? The State benefits enormously from carers putting their careers on hold to look after elderly relatives, children, and sick partners. Being a bit of a feminist I would be the last person to say a mother’s place is in the home, but given the lack of work out there, a Mum or Dad wanting to be at home with their youngsters is a positive thing. We have got ourselves into a right pickle when two large salaries are required to keep a roof over the head of a family.

    • Yes, a right pickle indeed. As incomes have increased (especially with two income households), so has our ability to spend more on house prices, but as the prices have gone up, we then need to mantain a high level of income just to get by. It’s very sad that many families now need both parents to work to pay the bills. Lack of family time for working parents and the need for more childcare or our inability to care for ill or elderly family members is harming families.

      I’m still working on an answer. Any adjustment in this area as a society as a whole is going to be painful, at least in the short term.

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