Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. The legacy of this war is hotly contested, and there are at least three competing views.
Some argue the War on Poverty created a culture of dependency, while pouring massive amounts of money down the drain. They point to official government figures, which show the poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much since 1964.
Others argue that poverty would be double what it is now if not for the safety nets established in the 1960s. They dispute the accuracy of government figures, pointing instead to competing studies which suggest a more dramatic decline in the rate of poverty since then.
I’ll leave that debate to others. Right now, it’s the third group I care about: those who question the very notion of waging a war on poverty in the first place. Charity is all well and good, they might say, but it’s grandiose and naïve to think we can ever fully eradicate poverty.
They even quote Jesus: “The poor you will have with you always.”
I should know. I used to be part of this group.
This approach recently led one writer to suggest we leave should Jesus out of the whole poverty debate. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what Jesus really said — and what he meant. Because it turns out this statement was anything but an excuse for apathy.
Yes, it’s true Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Although Mark’s gospel, usually known for its brevity, extends the quote: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” This ought to be our first clue that Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to trivialize the importance of helping those in need.
But there’s an even bigger clue when we turn to original source of Jesus’ statement. You see, Jesus didn’t pull this line out of thin air. As a Jewish rabbi, he was constantly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament. In doing so, he employed a common rabbinical technique, which later came to be known as remez, in which the speaker quoted a small piece of text, with the intent of calling to mind the larger passage it came from.
When Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, but he expected his disciples (and us) to think about the whole passage.
Deuteronomy 15 commanded the ancient Israelites to cancel each other’s debt every seven years. (Interesting to note that no distinction was made between responsible and irresponsible debt; no matter how people fell into financial distress, they were to be given a clean slate every seven years.)
The passage ends with the statement quoted by Jesus centuries later: there will always be poor people among you. Which is precisely why laws protecting the poor were needed in the first place.
Again, from Deuteronomy:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
What’s more, to the writer of Deuteronomy 15, persistent poverty was anything but acceptable. Back up a few verses, to Deuteronomy 15:4-5.
There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands…
In other words, when the writer said there would always be poor people in the land, it was a concession to Israel’s likely failure to obey the law requiring them to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Sure enough, that’s pretty much how the story plays out in the rest of the Old Testament.
There would always be poor people because the Israelites would not prove as generous as they were meant to be. There would always be poor people because Israel would not cancel everyone’s debts like they were supposed to. The statement “you will always have the poor with you” is not an excuse for apathy; it’s a condemnation of it.
Good people will disagree on the best ways to mitigate and perhaps even eradicate poverty. The success (or failure) of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will be scrutinized to no end, and even then we still won’t settle on what works and what doesn’t.
But one thing is clear, at least for those of us who claim the Bible as some kind of authority: apathy in the face of poverty is not an option. We do not have the right to use Jesus’ words as an excuse for inaction. The statement “there will always be poor people” might describe the reality that is, but it does not describe the reality that ought to be.