Would Jesus support food assistance for needy families?

Dr. Jeff Sinn Winthrop College

January 17, 2014

When it comes to feeding the hungry, why not ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Have the professing politicians in Congress done this? Apparently not. At the end of last year, the U.S. House of Representatives took steps to increase hunger in America by undermining SNAP — the effective and efficient Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This vital safety net provides basic food (just $1.40 per person, per meal) to help families stay on their feet while they find work and put their kids through school. One proposal would have ended food assistance for people unable to find work in a jobless recovery, many of whom are responsible for hungry children. Is this what Jesus would have done?

Jesus imagined a radically caring, inclusive community. In the emerging Kingdom of God there was room at the feast and no seating by rank or merit. What would Jesus think of our prideful presumption in deciding which of the poor are deserving? I think He might say something less than supportive.

Consider how Jesus sowed the seeds of His Kingdom - he was reckless, welcoming whomever came whether early or late. And get this: In his story of the prodigal son, it is the “fiscally responsible” son who is chastised for lack of grace. In another story, the forgiven debtor who fails to reciprocate is jailed for wickedness. Those in Congress who demand the poor demonstrate their worthiness to not go hungry (by finding jobs in a jobless recovery) are repeating the self-righteousness of this hardhearted son - self-righteousness that Jesus abhorred. Those who pray to Jesus should tremble at the thought of deciding who is worthy.

The irony, of course, is that profligate grace (far beyond meager SNAP assistance) would yield a stronger economy. Jesus, a far better economist than Ayn Rand, would preach the multiplier effect. Moody’s Analytics finds that for every dollar spent on SNAP the economy sees $1.70 in return on that investment. Remember Jesus preached a kingdom of mutuality - not mere tickets for individual salvation. You want grace, you show grace. Give it away. Embrace mutuality. Love your neighbor as yourself.

As the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has observed, in an economy suffering from inadequate demand, belt-tightening only makes things worse. The prudent logic for households (i.e. save now, spend more later) becomes perverse in a depressed economy. In an economy, your spending is my income. Austerity has failed, both here and in Europe. Some economists estimate a U.S. loss of over $1 trillion in economic activity. Cutting benefits to the poor may feel tough and responsible, but it is the economic equivalent of leaching a sick patient, which produces the exact opposite of the effect intended.

And of course we need a Come-to-Jesus conversation about the darker motivations for cutting aid to the poor. Some simply don’t want their hard-earned money going to “those people.” A recent Duke University study found that increased racial hostility predicted increased concern over the deficit. And study participants were much less likely to approve welfare dollars if the intended recipients were black, regardless of their work histories. Jesus of course was recklessly inclusive, expanding the circle of moral concern. The parable of the Good Samaritan puts a mixed-race, marginalized individual in the leading role, and he’s much more righteous than the usual suspects.

If Christians are serious about following Jesus, SNAP is an easy issue. Senator Kay Hagan and others in the federal delegation should lead as Jesus would and help hungry North Carolinians with the resources that puts food on the table and not put barriers in the way for those struggling to find work and support a family. Let’s tell them to focus on fixing our economy so that all people who are looking for work can find it.

Jeff Sinn resides in Charlotte and is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.