How the Proverbs Turn Poverty into Prosperity
It’s an election year in the United States, which means politicians across the country will trot out plans to help Americans “get ahead” with either new spending programs, more tax breaks, or both.
These materially focused solutions have their place, to be sure. But some of the latest and most influential economic research shows they have almost no impact on one of the most commonly cited goals of politicians: to help low-income people and their children do better financially.
Instead, the things that really help kids from low-income families move ahead aren’t material, but social, according to a series of studies by the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren.
Their research has shown that communities helping low-income children grow up to earn more than their parents have these major characteristics: low levels of kids raised by single moms, low levels of racial segregation and income inequality, low levels of violent crime, and good schools (measured by high standardized test scores).
In other words, when entire communities live out and institutionalize the principle of right relationships that pervades the Proverbs, the material blessings promised in the Proverbs follow along. And when communities struggle to live out and institutionalize the Proverbs, more of the poor remain poor.
Chetty and Hendren’s research is unprecedented. It is based on two generations of tax returns of families with children who moved from one location to another. It shows a “neighborhood effect” that either raises or depresses a child’s future adult income for each year a child spends in a particular metro area. For an easy-to-read explainer, go here.
Below, I discuss the four key factors identified by Chetty and Hendren in relation to what the Proverbs say on each topic.
The prevalence of kids raised by single mothers is, by far, the most significant factor that Chetty and Hendren found to explain why kids grow up to earn less, relative to their peers, than their parents.
The Proverbs never directly address children being raised by a single mother. They certainly don’t condemn moms who find themselves in that situation—so many of whom work incredibly hard to give their children the best upbringing they can. But the Proverbs do strongly warn against actions that inevitably lead to broken families.
The structure of the Proverbs directs its statements toward men, but they also apply to women.
“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” (Prov. 25:28)
“A companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.” (Prov. 29:3b)
“For a prostitute is a deep pit; an adulteress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the traitors among mankind.” (Prov. 23:27-28)
“The adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God … her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed.” (Prov. 2:16-18)
“Like a bird that strays from its nest is a man who strays from his home.” (Prov. 27:8)
By contrast, consider what the Proverbs say about the far-reaching blessings of marital fidelity.
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” (Prov. 18:22)
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” (Prov. 5:18)
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. … She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. … Her children rise up and call her blessed.” (Prov. 31:10-11, 20, 28a)
The Proverbs never directly address issues of racial or ethnic segregation. However, they overflow with statements about how the rich and poor should interact. These statements were given to the people of Israel, who had already been instructed repeatedly by Moses to “Love the sojourner”—that is, the one not like us: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34)
So separating ourselves—by space or customs—from those unlike us—in ethnicity or income—is not biblical. Yet that is what has happened repeatedly throughout history, including the recent history of northern U.S. cities like mine.
“Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” (Prov. 14:21)
“Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. (Prov. 28:27)
“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” (Prov. 22:9)
“The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all.” (Prov. 22:2)
“Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” (Prov. 21:13)
“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” (Prov. 18:1)
“Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” (Prov. 27:10)
“Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” (Prov. 22:16)
“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Prov. 10:12)
This one seems obvious. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with violent crime. Its presence almost inevitably leads people to move away, depressing the wealth and leadership available to help that neighborhood flourish. But the interesting thing about Chetty and Hendren’s research is that it shows violent crime depresses income mobility across entire metro areas—even among the affluent, who don’t live in the high-crime areas. So violence is a problem that affects us and our kids, whether it’s happening one house away, one block away, one mile away or even one county away.
“A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.” (Prov. 16:29)
“My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason … we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder,’ … my son, do not walk in the way with them … these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives.” (Prov. 1:10-18)
“Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” (Prov. 26:27)
Again, this one is fairly obvious. Children who receive a poor education tend to be poor as adults. Yet again, the impact of low-quality schools depresses income growth across entire cities—even in affluent areas with good schools. So simply exiting bad schools—via home school, private school or moving to a district with high-quality public schools—doesn’t entirely solve the problem. Neither does simply giving material goods—without the education—to those in need, as the Proverbs make clear.
“By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” (Prov. 24:3-4)
“Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.” (Prov. 4:13)
“Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold.” (Prov 8:10)
“There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.” (Prov. 20:15)
The material needs of our neighbors should be important to Christians. As D.J. Innes, a political scientist at The Kings College, has written, God did not design people to be poor, in the same way he did not design them to be sick.
Yet the route to alleviating material poverty is first alleviating social poverty. As the Proverbs show—and now economics too—living and institutionalizing behaviors that lead to right relationships is the surest route to end poverty, in this generation and the next.