Let’s talk about the United States of America and The Poor.
But first, let’s talk about The Bible. It’s an easy segue – a lot of americans are christians. Evangelical, denominational. Notional. Heck – 2% are Jews, and we’ll kinda be covering them, too, when we look at the Old Testament.
One of the big things in the OT was the sacrifice system. 10% of the increase of agricultural produce gets offered to God (capital G, we are using the word as a name for a particular person). That’s a lot of grain, a lot of meat. Some of it was burned as burnt offerings, but that was not the majority rare – burnt offerings were for specific sins. No, most of it was simply cooked. The altar, let’s recognise, was a BBQ. The grain was offered as a “wave offering”. They’d just wave it before the altar and that constituted offering it.
So, what happened to all this produce? What happened to the cooked meat? Sure the priests ate their fill, but we are talking about 10% of everything produced by the entire nation. What about the rest of it?
What happened to it was that it was given out to the poor.
We see this in the New Testament, where St Paul discusses if it is ok to eat meat that has been offered to idols. He concludes that idols are fake, so it’s perfectly fine. But why were christians doing this in the first place? Because if you are poor, that was where you’d get meat. The greek and roman religion worked exactly the same way. In India, they offer milk to Ganesha by pouring it over his statue. What happens to the milk? Is it just left to run on the ground? Of course not: the priests collect it.
The church has for millennia been a society’s welfare department. Even up to the early 1900s in Britain the church tax, the poor tax has been a thing. Still is, in some places in Europe.
Why are there church hospitals? Why are there church schools? Because there always have been. For as long as there has been civilisation. While the wealthy and powerful concerned themselves with trade and war, it was the church of the day that built schools for the commons, infirmaries for the poor, mental asylums for the poor, orphanages for discarded children, that registered births, deaths, and marriages of the commons. The government-sanctioned church has always been the welfare department, part of the government, with power to levy taxes, to make laws. Not to say that it always worked, or even worked well. But it was the church that did this stuff.
(Note, incidentally, what a nonsense this fact makes of the evangelical claim that christians ought to tithe to their churches today. The preachers just trouser the money, because there’s no structures in place to do what should be done with it.)
With that context, let’s look at the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
And there it is. Right from the very foundations, right in the constitution, the guys in wigs and knee-breeches declare “we ain’t paying for that shit”. It was a young country, with fruited plains, and surely no-one was trapped in poverty. After all – becoming a land owner was just a matter of shooting a few natives. If anyone was poor, it was their own fault.
What I’m saying is: it’s not new. The plight of the San Fransisco drug addicts, the structural barriers to the government doing anything about it, are not new. The dismissal of the mentally ill, the disabled veteran, the pregnant young woman as being any concern of the government is not new.
Most of all: it’s not conservative, in the sense that conservativism is to do with religious values. Quite the opposite: it’s to do with liberalism. Economic liberalism frees the well-off from being obliged to have concern for people less well-off. Right from the very beginning.
It won’t be fixed. It can’t be fixed. Disdain for those that don’t “make it” is part of America’s DNA.