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In America, there are two primary institutions for ensuring the well being of less fortunate citizens: the government and the church.

Prior to the Civil War, Catholic and Protestant Christian churches mitigated the needs of America’s poor citizens with some success, while government assistance, particularly at the federal level, was rare, if not altogether unheard of. The success of the churches’ efforts to alleviate poverty, however, was greatly due to the fact that before the middle of the nineteenth century most of America’s truly poor (i.e. slaves) were not served by the churches, but rather maintained like livestock by their wealthy owners.

In the 1860s, when four million black Americans slaves were freed and the economy was destabilized, those same four million Americans became officially poor and unemployed– although still not officially citizens. Many were even forced to go back to the plantations from which they were freed in an attempt to earn just enough in wages to avoid starvation. Informal and inhumane as it may have been, some scholars refer to this as the first American “welfare for work program.”

Around the same time, waves of unskilled immigrants fleeing famine and harsh economic conditions in Europe were also flooding into the country’s northern states. The influx of immigrants combined with the freeing of millions of slaves necessitated major changes in a country that was increasingly unable to deliver on the promise of the American Dream, and since that point in history, American churches and other non-governmental organizations have failed miserably to provide social welfare and serve what the Christian Bible identifies as “the least of us.”

In the churches’ stead, the government (both federal and state) was forced to assume the role of redistributing wealth and providing food, shelter, and services to American citizens that could not or would not provide for themselves. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal cemented government intervention into matters of social welfare with programs like social security and unemployment insurance.

Today, political debates regarding government welfare programs are raging. There are valid concerns as to whether the programs condone or even encourage an unhealthy dependence, but a sad irony seems entirely lost on many of those who stand so firmly against government intervention: those who balk at any semblance of a welfare state (particularly conservative evangelical Christians) disregard their own churches’ shortcomings and ignore the cold reality that there is no other feasible solution outside of third-world poverty for millions of Americans.

For many reasons, it would be ideal to turn over social welfare programs to churches and other non-profit organizations, but the churches and non-profits themselves are the first to explain how their inability to help the needy is directly linked to the lack of funding they receive via voluntary contributions.

According to the self-reporting of Christian churches, only 3%-5% of Christians give the biblically mandated minimum 10% of their finances to the church. One might make the argument that relieving government from the responsibility of social welfare would significantly decrease every American’s tax obligations and therefore lead to increased giving in the churches, but if the word of God can only generate obedience from 5% of heavily-taxed Christians, would lightly-taxed Christians respond dramatically better?

The fact is, people are greedy by nature, and it takes the threat of fines and even imprisonment to make us share what we have with others, just like it takes the threat of a spanking or time-out to force most children to share their toys. Government is undeniably wasteful and corrupt, but it is only when conviction from God becomes more effective than conviction from the IRS that America can have the smaller government that so many conservatives desire.