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The Poor You Will Always Have With You

By Dr. Christopher Hughes
. 1 Comment(s)

One of the most vexing arguments made by conservatives in opposition to government intervention in increasing access to health care, or of providing social services in general, is that they view charity by individuals as the only legitimate vehicle for these services,  and they are not among the roles of government. It is unclear to me by whom this bright line was drawn between the role of individuals and government. It certainly wasn't by any traditional Christian or Jewish denominations, as nearly all have an explicit social justice mission that includes advocating for government help for the needy and the sick. And yet, Speaker John Boehner, when rolling out his party's budget, declared it a "moral document."

Poverty directly influences health, nutrition, education, health literacy, and outcomes of health care delivery. The CDC recently released a report on disparities in health care, and regarding socioeconomic status, they report that, "In the United States, as elsewhere, the risk for mortality, morbidity, unhealthy behaviors, reduced access to health care, and poor quality of care increases with decreasing socioeconomic circumstances."  We have covered that report extensively here in Progress Notes, so I won't repeat except to say that poverty has a huge impact on health. (I will parenthetically note that it also has major ramifications in education as well, since many have decided that teachers are to blame rather than conditions on the ground in poorly performing school districts.)

Tackling poverty as the underlying illness of our disparities in health and education comes as no surprise to physicians, teachers, nurses, or anyone working in the trenches of either of these fields. But developing the political courage to do so is another matter. I recently heard Newt Gingrich warning that the United States could become like one of those "failed social democracies of Europe." Apparently, he has the brass to make such a statement because he presumes nobody in his audience would ever think to question its veracity.

Those "failures" of nations actually keep track of data on many areas of interest, along with us, through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The "failures” uniformly have significantly lower rates of poverty and less income inequality than the US, and our poor are 20% poorer than their poor. As we have discussed ad nauseum in this and other forums, they also have better health outcomes than we do, mostly better social mobility, and some have higher per capita GDP, and better per capita wealth accumulation than we do! (And we are decidedly average on educational outcomes.)

It seems clear that many of our politicians need to rethink whether we are really doing better than either the imaginary pots or kettles, and muster up the courage to really change America for the better. I like to think we can end up with a country more like "Star Trek" than "Mad Max," but Max seems to be winning the day at the moment!

For those interested in the title of this post, keep reading, otherwise, you are excused!

The quote in the title is an interesting one, as it is found in two of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark, but also in John, indicating its importance in the Canon. Jesus is being lavished with expensive oils, and a member of the group sanctimoniously points out that these oils could have been sold to the benefit of the poor. Jesus notes that we will always have the poor to take care of, long after he is gone. Jesus is actually referencing the book of 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."

I think it is fair to say that neither Deuteronomy nor Jesus were using the obvious truth that there will always be poor people as a commandment to not try to reduce poverty! I have extreme difficulty accepting the conservative argument that fighting poverty, including improving access to health care, better education and so on, must only be done on an individual, charitable basis, especially in our largely Judeo-Christian ethical framework. This seems to be unique to some of American conservatism, and some parts of American Christian thinking. Certainly, the largest mainstream Christian and Jewish churches, all with significant deliberation, consideration of scripture, and time, have decided that advocating for social justice, and government intervention in particular, is appropriate. When will Congress?

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  1. mike muldoon

    i enjoyed your brave take on how conservatives knowingly or unknowingly horribly twist religion to fit their own self serving needs.

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