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Sometimes, Good Intentions Have Negative Consequences

In his most recent book, Reverend Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, argues that good intentions can sometimes have unintended consequences.

When he was in seminary, Sirico and his classmates ran a soup kitchen in a low-income part of DC. In order to share physical and spiritual nourishment with the poor, they would develop relationships with those who ate there.

[pq]But we can’t just throw money at people and expect them to come out of poverty.[/pq] They didn’t have to clean or help set up—they could just come, eat and leave. One day, Sirico realized an unintended consequence of his generous actions.

Since they didn’t require anything from their guests, people were coming from all over to get a free meal. As a result, a local fish n’ chips restaurant was losing all of its customers. He writes:

It seemed a heretical thought, especially in light of all the obvious good we were doing in the soup kitchen just a few blocks away. But here was a family trying to run a small business… Their business required monthly payments for the rent, the lights, the food, water bills, heating bills, insurance, taxes, wages—the list could go on and on. And it struck me: we were this family’s competition!

There is a better way do charity. Sirico’s solution was to require attendees of the soup kitchen to help clean up. This weeded out those who were coming simply for the free food—and not for the restoration and personal development that they really needed. Charity and caring for the poor are important, but as Christians, we should also help foster an understanding of the importance of work. After all, work was instituted as way for individuals to use their God-given gifts to glorify Him. It is an essential part of humanity. 

Of course, charity and giving people things for “free” is not inherently evil. But we can’t just throw money at people and expect them to come out of poverty. We must be constantly aware of the real-world effects that our charity is having.

The minimum wage is another policy that feels good but has unintended consequences. In his January State of the Union address, President Obama proposed to raise the minimum wage for federal employees to $10.10 an hour. The Congressional Budget Office released a report shortly thereafter revealing that a minimum wage increase could cost up to 500,000 jobs, something that is definitely not needed in a wavering economy.

For those of us not making minimum wage, it might seem like a great idea to raise it for those who are—mostly young and unskilled workers who are new to the work force. For most of us, minimum wage hikes don’t really affect us as much. The prices of fast food and groceries may rise slightly, but it’s barely enough to make us realize the detrimental effects of our well-intended policies.

In a podcast called eEconomics, comedian David Angelo summed up minimum wage laws like this, “As you raise the minimum wage, you raise the cost of living. While it may not be a huge increase, it’s going to disproportionately hurt those with the least amount of purchasing power.”

Borrowing the words of Richard Weaver, policies—like ideas—have consequences. Regardless of our intentions, let’s make sure the consequences are good ones.