Calvin and ALICE

In 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country, in which I examined the religious roots of ostensibly secular policy preferences—things like climate change, foreign policy and economic systems. It was when researching that book that I came to appreciate the longstanding effect of Calvinism on American attitudes toward income inequality.

As I wrote in that book, the theological precept that arguably had the greatest effect on colonial economic activity was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which held that God had decided the ultimate fate of each person at the moment of creation. Predestination included the belief that the faithful discharge of one’s calling—the diligence with which a person worked– was evidence of the depth and sincerity of that person’s faith. Predestination, especially when coupled with the doctrine of original sin, convinced believers that the suffering of the poor must be intended by God as a spur to their repentance.

In other words, the poor were poor for a reason, and helping them escape poverty might actually thwart God’s will.

The belief that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective wasn’t universal, but it was widespread–and   that suspicion of poverty, that belief that poor people are somehow lacking in moral fiber or responsible for their own condition, has profoundly influenced American culture. Understanding that attitude about poverty is central to any effort to understand today’s arguments about income inequality.

Of course, there are cultural attitudes, and then there are facts.

The facts are that, aside from children, the elderly and the disabled, poverty in the United States is experienced primarily by those we call the working poor. Most poor people in the U.S. work forty or more hours a week; they simply don’t make enough money to live.

Let’s look at my own state of Indiana. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to the United Way, ALICE families are those with income above federal poverty levels, but below what it actually costs to live in their communities. In Indiana, 36% of all households live below the ALICE threshold. About 14% are below the poverty level.

To put that another way, there are 908,000 households in Indiana that cannot make ends meet. I want to emphasize: these are families and individuals with jobs, and most of them don’t qualify for social services or income supports.

The United Way’s ALICE report calculates the cost of living for each county, and takes differences in cost of living into account when it identifies ALICE families. In Marion County, where I live, a single individual living needs $18, 396 a year, or 9.20 an hour, to survive; a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler needs $51, 972, or 25.99 an hour.

In Indiana, 68% of jobs pay less than $20/hour, and three-quarters of those pay less than $15/hour.

If you are interested in learning more about ALICE families and their demographics, I encourage you to go to the website of the Indiana Association of United Ways and access the entire report. It’s an eye-opener.

Most of us, hearing those numbers, say to ourselves: if over a third of Indiana households can’t make ends meet, there must be programs to help them bridge the gap, right?


In fact, the number of households receiving government aid—what most of us call welfare—totaled about 9,000 families in 2014—and emergency payments from local welfare offices like the Township Trustees actually declined by 13%. Just to sum up: the total gap between sufficiency and actual income—that is, the amount of money that would be needed every year to bring all Hoosier households up to the ALICE threshold—was $34.2 billion in 2014. Those households earned $15.8 billion. They received $15.1 billion in combined charity and government assistance. That left a gap of $3.3 billion dollars. It would take 3.3 billion dollars of additional wages or government welfare or charitable support to bring Indiana families up to subsistence.

The numbers are staggering, but they only tell part of the story. The human costs of poverty and inequality to both individuals and society are immense, but we seem to accept those costs; certainly, Americans have not demonstrated the political will to address the issue. It’s easier to attribute poverty to those “lazy” people who refuse to pull themselves up by their (nonexistent) bootstraps than to identify and reform the systemic inequities that make it difficult or impossible for many hardworking people to achieve self-sufficiency.

It’s undoubtedly unfair of me, but I blame Calvin….


  1. If “predestination” truly controls all; why get up in the morning if nothing we say, do or decide not to do will have any effect on anything? I have more faith and trust in people in general (today’s presidential fiasco excepted) and our future. My faith in people is not based on creationism but on evolution of the human condition due to the vast resources available in the human mind. I can only hope my faith and trust are not unfounded and we, as individuals and a country, will survive the current conditions.

  2. Really good blog!
    You are not the only one who sees the theology of Calvin in the ugliness of American political thought.
    As someone who grew up between the Lutheran and Catholic churches, and an M.A. in theology from a United Church of Christ seminary, I’ve long been aware of the thread of Calvinist thought in American life. I long ago examined and rejected his “theology”.

    Unfortunately, most Americans are completely ignorant of this theology (or any) and its’ pernicious influence. Our founding fathers were mostly highly educated men and often skeptics of traditional theologies. A rather large number of them were Deists and would not have considered themselves Christians in either the traditional theological sense of that word or today’s sense.

    If most Americans voting today ever read any of the writings of our Founders they would be shocked at how far their thinking and belief systems were from most of the citizens and voters of today.

  3. So, basically, the government allows employers to pay people at such low wages that the workers will need to have their incomes subsidized by that same government, which then abdicates the responsibility. A low minimum wage represents a giveaway to the corporations. Which, theoretically, the state could tax so that they’d have the money to pay the underpaid workers. But they don’t. And this is all somehow because they think God thinks that all of those poor people and their children are unworthy of grace? Or food? The mind boggles.

  4. America has been celebrating greed since the Reagan era. This goes beyond the tenets of Calvin or of any other religious philosopher that I have ever read. We need to return to our senses and celebrate enough to live comfortably.

  5. And yet, those government officials give tax breaks to these companies to open in the state but don’t INSIST that they pay their employees enough so that the government doesn’t need to give more assistance to those employees to survive right? What a mess! Great blog today.

  6. Greed was included in the baggage Vespucci, de Leon, Columbus, the Portuguese and Spanish Conquistadores, French, clergy and lay plunders, oh yeah, the Dutch to New Holland, etc., ad infinitum carried with them. My error, it wasn’t in the baggage, it was the baggage. Reagan was a B actor in the greed department.

  7. I looked over that report Professor…there’s some striking numbers in there. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I consider Calvin and Hobbs to be great philosophy. Perhaps there’s another Calvin though.

    There are people in every generation who show us the power of the combination of learning combined with imagination. But there’s much worry that that combination will lead people straight to hell so great caution must be God like.

    We can do so much. We choose to do so little.

  9. The annual increase in the federal poverty guidelines has never even attempted to keep up with inflation. From 2015 to 2016 it increased $110 for a percentage increase of .00935. The dollar amount for 2015 was $11,770 and is now $11,880 for 2016.

    No one can survive on this income level, so this ultimately leaves those in poverty worse off each successive year.

    The minimum wage must be increased to a level that at least can sustain a person above the level of poverty and the income level for the poverty guidelines must be raised to a realistic level.

    The time for employers to pay their employees a living wage is long overdue. We must stop the welfare supplementation for billionaire and millionaire employers. We all know that they are the true welfare queens.

  10. We are living in the peculiar world of poverty caused by both statute and lack of statute. One wonders if the rich and comfortable are not asking for a Bastille experience before yielding to the needs of food, clothing and shelter for the rest of us while they are politically exempting themselves from “paying their fair share of the load” necessary to a cohesive society before that society explodes. It appears they are willing to take the risk. For instance, Trump has publicly stated that he is against an increase not only in the minimum wage but in wages generally, observing further that “wages are too high already.” Such is hardly in keeping with the numbers Sheila has provided for us today, especially considering that southern states are worse off than Indiana. What is it going to take to convince the rich and corporate class that we the people are entitled to our fair share of our economy’s income – a revolution?

  11. As a Boomer I look around at America today and I reminded of the Poem > Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:

    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    Today factories that once produced all of our consumer needs lie in ruins, or were leveled to the ground. Our streets, and roads are cracked and pot holed, bridge supports are rusting. Houses that were built and were once sturdy and provided a home to a family are falling apart.

    I think in many respects the poverty we see and do not see is a self inflicted wound brought about by the Corporate Politicians who serve their Wall Street Masters, rather than Main Street.

  12. The future is always different than the past and the difference is going by the decade.

    America has to keep up, in fact should be leading.

    Republicans have deprived us from effective government for 16 years and that’s a significant handicap.

    Can we retake the lead?

    Not unless we rid ourselves of that obstacle.

  13. Maybe a revolution is in the US future. We in Holland have a acceptable minimum level of existence for the pour, not because the employers have been so generous, but because of social struggle. The unions, the socialist political parties, NOT being communists, forced the government and employers to negotiate and come to reasonable terms and solutions, mostly in compromise.
    Now, is that possible in nowadays US of A?

  14. I knew things weren’t good in Indiana, but this column left me gasping. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” I’ve added Sheila’s book “God and Country” to my reading list, though as with all of your lists (I’m sure), that list is long. I recently finished an excellent book called “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond, which I highly recommend. In fact, I can’t recall who recommended it to me — perhaps I heard of it from this blog?

  15. This ALICE report should be connected to Mike Pence whenever he brags about his accomplishments as governor.

  16. Admittedly I’m entering this conversation rather late in the day, but I suppose it’s never too late to insert a thought or two. Since I’ve observed that Ms Kennedy has on more than one occasion linked Christianity with Calvinism for research purposes, I feel I should speak out for those folks of a Christian persuasion, likely nominal, but somewhat leaning toward Christianity of a different persuasion.

    I’m not here to challenge Ms Kennedy’s being stuck on John Calvin’s rather dastardly ideas such as predestination (those folks who are chosen before all time to be accepted by God as the chosen few), but rather to offer that perhaps Ms Kennedy is overlooking a massive rebuttal of Calvin’s theology of predestination by never exploring any Christian theology beyond the less than ancient Calvinistic thoughts that so easily fit into her predetermined ideas. I write this with respect and I write this with all honesty as one who describes herself as a nominal but studied Christian. Not all Christians adhere to the ancient Calvinistic thoughts.

    I suggest reading the several and many arguments of Calvinism vs Arminianism if you’re a true student of religious philosophies. If I were asked to select a particular religious philosophy, I’d choose Arminianism. As some would say, Calvinism is so yesterday, so out-dated, and so easily exploited by social researchers.

  17. Mean spirited belief systems. If there is a heaven, it is for those who expand opportunity for the poor. Calvin was just wrong.

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