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Book Review: From Prophecy to Charity

Generosity is a virtue that cannot be ignored in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” God very clearly commands us to love the poor in the Bible, yet how to properly care for the poor is one of the most controversial topics among politically involved Christian circles. Professor of politics and policy at New York University Lawrence M. Mead provides a thorough critique of U.S. welfare policy from a biblical worldview in From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor.

From Prophecy to Charity

Mead’s work is saturated with surprising statistics that challenge conventional welfare beliefs. The numbers confirm certain social programs neither hold the poor accountable nor successfully lift them out of poverty. The problem is rooted in the government’s refusal to properly consider behavioral barriers, such as the decay of the traditional family, rather than solely economic barriers in welfare policy-making:

Poverty is treated as a condition that is widespread and involuntary. The behavioral side of the problem is usually ignored. But realism requires that it be acknowledged.

He uses intriguing historical examples and an in-depth sociological analysis to explain the need for poverty-fighting programs to dignify the poor by holding them accountable for their actions and enforcing positive cultural norms.

Mead also takes on several critical perspectives of welfare reform including the “rights tradition” and the “libertarian tradition.” He claims these two extremes conflict with biblical beliefs, along with two extreme Christian perspectives: Catholic social teaching and the social gospel. When properly examined, Judeo-Christian tradition can be used as a guideline to welfare policy. Mead claims in Jewish tradition:

Welfare never replaced the family or private employment, but built on them.

He suggests the best way forward includes reforming other paternalistic social programs in a way that not only aid the poor, but seek to redirect lifestyle. For example, in the 1990s, welfare reform in the United States combined more generous support with clearer work expectations. Though many church groups opposed reform and considered it unjust, it successfully put many single mothers back to work. Mead believes this illustration is proof that whether the poor work or not is more attributed to expectation rather than opportunity.

From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor provides a detailed welfare policy analysis with raw facts and a well-thought out cultural critique. To end, Mead leaves his readers with an optimistic vision for the future of poverty alleviation—so long as our motivation does not come from a belief the poor have been denied some essential right, but rather from acts of charity rooted in love.