Maybe it’s the bell-ringers and their kettles. Or a solicitation from a local food bank or a midnight mission. It’s the season when we’re reminded of the “less fortunate” whom, this year, include more than 44 million Americans who don’t have enough to eat. And despite donations, meal drop-offs, and stints at a soup kitchen, charity won’t solve the growing problem.
If presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Republican congress have their way, millions more will join their ranks as additional dollars are scrubbed from food programs. GOP congressmen have already tightened rules for food stamps and ended pandemic-era programs that benefited families with children, despite their success. The new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has said that reducing funds for food assistance is a priority for him.
But cutting food programs is nothing new for the GOP. Reducing aid to needy families was at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s domestic policy. Reagan, a devout Christian, believed God blessed America with freedom, but Americans would not be free until government was off their backs and citizens took responsibility for their own lives. His solution: cut taxes and reduce spending for social services. It was a twofer that pleased voters aggrieved by their tax burden and also his evangelical base.
Johnson, too, is a devout Christian. He is a Bible-believing Southern Baptist who holds that religion informs his policies and priorities. In 2016, he stated that we live in a “biblical” republic, and it appears his Jesus does not support gun control, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, the theory of evolution, or even American democracy. Nor does this Jesus seem concerned with feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked.
I am religion professor, and I have never found biblical evidence showing that Jesus believed we should turn our back on the less fortunate. Jesus did say a lot about the poor, as Matthew, Mark and Luke report. Specifically, he said the poor are blessed and that the rich should invite them to their homes, feast with them at their banquets, and give them money. When Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you (Mark 14:17 or Matthew 27:11),” he was not justifying the existence of poverty but reminding his disciples of the verse from Deuteronomy 15:11: “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.”
Many American Christians—and members of other faiths—never accepted that premise.
Colonial authorities believed the able-bodied poor should take care of themselves and their families. Charity was for the “deserving poor,” widows, children and the physically challenged. All others were “undeserving,” that is, scoundrels, frauds or indolent. After the American Revolution, in the early years of the Republic, local communities took care of their poor, only if they could prove residency. Town leaders sent many to poorhouses, although the able-bodied usually went to work farms. By the mid-nineteenth century, rising rates of deaths, illnesses, and illegitimate births in these institutions made warehousing the poor untenable.
After the Civil War, the need for new solutions coincided with two significant trends: urbanization and immigration. Desperate for work, many rural residents converged on New York, Chicago and other growing cities. They were joined by immigrants, more than 12 million during the latter half of the nineteenth century, mostly Catholic or Jewish. Black and white, native born and foreigner, millions squeezed into tenements, taking hazardous jobs digging sewers, building bridges, and doing 12-hour factory shifts to feed their families.
Religious groups descended on the slums offering food, childcare, and job training. Urban missions, settlement homes and religious charities came and went. Wealthy women counseled poor mothers on proper housekeeping, and Protestant missionaries tried to convert hard up Jews and Catholics. But even religious charity had a catch; at an 1899 Christmas dinner hosted by the Salvation Army, thousands of wealthy spectators paid a dollar apiece to watch New York’s poor enjoy turkey, goose, duck, mutton, suckling pig and plum pudding among other holiday delicacies.
Thirty years later, the Great Depression overwhelmed groups like the Salvation Army, which started in London in 1865 to aid the poor. The “less fortunate” now included 60 million Americans, almost half the nation’s population. FDR’s New Deal was a lifeline for many. The federal government created jobs, provided relief funds to the states, and aided the elderly, the disabled and mothers with dependent children.
When World War II ended and the economy rebounded, white picket fences, high steeple churches, and July 4th parades bespoke a new era of prosperity, piety and patriotism. When Lyndon Johnson, a church-going member of the Disciples of Christ, Christian, succeeded the Catholic John F. Kennedy, he pledged to lift up the millions of Americans living below the poverty line. Declaring a War on Poverty, he promised a Great Society through job training, low-income housing, funding for low-income schools, food stamps and medical assistance for the poor and elderly.
Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam War destroyed that dream. The losing conflict, as well as the sexual revolution, energy crisis, and subsequent recession, crushed the country’s complaisance as much as its prosperity. Faith in institutions, including the government, plummeted.
When Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan promised to make American great again, voters swept him into office. When he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” crowds cheered.
In 1981 and 1982, Reagan slashed funds for child nutrition, food stamps, and welfare. These and other reductions, hitting student loans, job training programs and low-income energy assistance, reduced social welfare programs by $22 billion. The upshot? A rise in poverty that remains today: In 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau found 12.4 Americans living in poverty, a 5 percent increase from the year before.
That rise owes a lot to the devastating economic effects of the pandemic. But it also reflects the Reagan’s religious vision of freedom made manifest in domestic policy.
Today’s GOP treats Reagan as its patron saint, but I doubt he would have supported the January 6th insurrection and subsequent efforts to impede free elections. I wonder, too, if he’d have a different approach than the current GOP for feeding the hungry.