Tag Archives: Calvinism

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….


Calvinism and America’s Crappy Transit

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued (still am) by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world. I wasn’t focusing on the more obvious connections–we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and fostered certain approaches to public policy.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism; a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars….

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life or economic development issue (both of which it certainly is) or even as a vital transportation function; they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” After all, according to Calvin, if they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.

Uncomfortable Questions, Depressing Answers

In a recent INforefront post, James Madison asked some uncomfortable questions about the role class distinctions play in (theoretically classless) America.

Does the Land of the Free have class distinctions? Are such distinctions inevitable? Defensible?

American notions of class aren’t grounded in lineage and tradition—at least, not to the extent they are elsewhere. Class in America gets confused with concepts of meritocracy and echoes of Calvinism, the belief that earthly success was a sign of God’s favor and one’s  “chosen-ness.”

The conviction that material wealth was evidence of moral merit was accompanied by the conclusion that poverty must signal moral defect. Over the years, these doctrinal roots of our belief in the comparative worth of rich and poor was lost, subsumed into a secular, class-based proposition: poor folks are lazy “takers” who lack “middle-class values.”

In a culture that celebrates (fast-disappearing) meritocracy and social mobility, it’s easy to conclude that poverty is a result of class-based attitudes and characteristics. And of course, if you’re privileged, it’s satisfying to attribute your good fortune to individual merit rather than the fact you were born (with the “right” race, religion, gender and sexual orientation) into a family with the wherewithal to feed, clothe, educate and endow you.

These attitudes foster policies that favor the fortunate, diminish the middle class, and make social mobility virtually impossible for the working poor.

There will always be winners and losers. There will always be some people who work harder than others, who are smarter or more entrepreneurial and deserve to do better. But a society that confuses individual worth with money and social status is a class-based society.

Right now, unfortunately, that describes America.

“Those” People

Republicans in the House of Representatives send an “up yours” message to the middle class, while explaining that “job creators” must be protected.

Rick Santorum is quoted as saying that today’s massive inequality is a reflection of the fact that some people work harder than others.

These are just a couple of the the more recent expressions of a persistent sub-text in American life, a perversion of early Calvinism that leads people to justify privilege by diminishing the value of those who have less. The poor, they believe, are poor because they are somehow morally flawed. They don’t put it quite that way, of course–instead, there is talk of “work ethic” and “middle class values” that “those people” lack.

I am a believer in the market. If everyone is playing by the rules, some people will do better than others. Society will value the contribution of some people over others. When markets are properly regulated–when no one can game the system–we all benefit from the efforts of the guy who invents a better widget, the artist whose work adds beauty to our lives, even (she says through gritted teeth) the athlete whose prowess we admire.

When the system is broken, when rewards are distributed on the basis of cronyism and influence-peddling, when those rewards are wildly disproportionate to the social or other value of the work involved (to investment bankers who invent credit default swaps, for example), I suppose it is understandable that the recipients would want to justify their good fortune by claiming that they really have earned their millions. When that self-justification takes the form of dismissing the value of those who’ve been less fortunate, however, is when it becomes truly obscene.

I’ve been haunted by a segment that aired on 60 Minutes last Sunday. The report focused upon the foreclosure crisis, and in particular, on the 11+ million homeowners who–despite being “underwater” on their mortgages–stubbornly continue to make their payments. There were people who had lost jobs, people living paycheck to paycheck, who refused to walk away from mortgages on which they owed twice what their homes are currently worth. In one interview, a woman who was barely eking out a living was asked why she continued to pay when others were abandoning their properties. Her response? “I signed the contract.  I’m not the sort of person who fails to live up to my obligations.”

It may come as a shock to the bankers and assorted plutocrats whose gated communities and social circles protect them from interaction with the American middle and lower classes, but most people–including poor people–work forty or more hours a week.(That’s why we call them the working poor.) They try to pay their bills, help their neighbors, and educate their children. A thousand dollars doesn’t represent a really fancy meal; it makes an enormous difference in their lives.

It’s bad enough when elected officials pursue policies that protect their cronies and contributors at the expense of their constituents. It’s unforgivable when they dismiss those constituents as unworthy of their concern.

Random Ruminations on Personal Responsibility

When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I began to really appreciate the impact of Calvinism on American culture. Calvin taught that people were either “saved” or not, and that personal success (wealth, acclaim) could be a sign that one was one of the elect. (Before religious historians post blistering responses, I know this is a very superficial description of the theology.) What intrigued me was the way in which this particular belief continues to influence our very American perspective on merit and personal responsibility.

I thought about that Calvinist influence when talking last week to a student who was disdainful of his classmates who had yet to find employment. “They should have done what I did,” he told me, explaining the extra efforts he had put into his own search. And those efforts were laudable, no question about it. But he is also blessed with a high intellect, lots of energy, the means to dress well for interviews and other advantages he takes for granted.

A contemporary of mine who runs a political think-tank is an exemplar of this attitude. He is a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, over six feet tall, and athletic. His parents both graduated from one of the nation’s best universities, and while they were not wealthy, he had a comfortable, intellectually enriched childhood and adolescence. He has enjoyed good health. He was born with a quick mind. And he has withering contempt for people who need public assistance of any kind. After all, he “stood on his own two feet.” Why can’t they?

I think this attitude is common among bright people who have worked and achieved. It takes some thought–not to mention humility and compassion–to recognize the role privilege plays in our lives.

My friend grew up white, straight and male in a society that privileged such things. He had good health, a good mind, and he didn’t encounter social or economic barriers to the tools he needed to succeed. I know that he–and my student, and others–also displayed admirable personal characteristics and diligence, but what they and so many others fail to appreciate is the extent to which privilege made it easier for them to “make it.”

The noted philosopher John Rawls asked an important question: What sort of system might we devise that would be fair to everyone if we operated behind “a veil of ignorance”–if we didn’t know beforehand what place we would have in that system? If we didn’t know whether we would be born rich or poor, black or brown or white, disabled or healthy, mentally impaired or brilliant…If we had no way of knowing whether we would be born to privilege or mass despair. What sort of system could we create that would reward effort and achievement while still recognizing and ameliorating “luck of the draw” disadvantages?

I don’t think a fair system would deny health-care to poor people or those with pre-existing conditions. I don’t think it would “save” money by cutting back preschool programs, or insisting that women bear children they are unprepared to raise. I don’t think it would deny laborers the opportunity to unite to bargain for safer workplaces.

I don’t think that insisting that people exercise personal responsibility requires us to ignore the role luck plays in our achievements.

We can insist on personal responsibility without being mean-spirited or willfully obtuse.