Pat Robertson, Poverty, and Possibilities
Religion & Liberty Online

Pat Robertson, Poverty, and Possibilities

Television evangelist Pat Robertson is certainly known for saying provocative things, and he’s done it again.

When Robertson’s co-host, Wendy Griffith, said not all families could afford to have multiple children, Robertson replied, ‘That’s the big problem, especially in Appalachia. They don’t know about birth control. They just keep having babies.’

‘You see a string of all these little ragamuffins, and not enough food to eat and so on,’ he said, and it’s desperate poverty.’

Let’s not discuss how horrible it is to refer to children living in poverty “ragamuffins.” Rather, let’s focus on something Robertson did get right here: the desperate poverty of the Appalachian region in the U.S. Fox News reports that in some areas of our country, 4 out of 5 people live in “near poverty”, and that jobs are nowhere to be found.

In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy ‘poor.

‘I think it’s going to get worse,’ said Irene Salyers, 52, of Buchanan County, Va., a declining coal region in Appalachia. Married and divorced three times, Salyers now helps run a fruit and vegetable stand with her boyfriend but it doesn’t generate much income. They live mostly off government disability checks.

‘If you do try to go apply for a job, they’re not hiring people, and they’re not paying that much to even go to work,’ she said.

There are a tangle of issues here. Many people living in poverty live in single-parent homes, which raises the poverty rate, as does lack of education. The type of jobs one could get right out of high school and expect to keep for a working lifetime while raising a family (think of mining or auto assembly line) don’t exist anymore. We are living in a time of “creative destruction”:

…the phenomenon whereby old skills, companies, and sometimes entire industries are eclipsed as new methods and businesses take their place. Creative destruction is seen in layoffs, downsizing, the obsolescence of firms, and, sometimes, serious injury to the communities that depend on them. It looks horrible, and, especially when seen through the lives of the people who experience such economic upheaval, it can be heartrending. But think of the alternative—What if the American Founders had constructed a society where no industry was ever allowed to go under because it would mean a lot of innocent people losing their jobs? I mean, have you ever met a livery yard owner or a stable boy? How about a blacksmith or a farrier? Do you have among your acquaintances any makers of bridles, saddles, chaises, coaches, or buggy whips?

It is heartrending, especially when children are involved. The answer, however, does not lie in standing still (making buggy whips instead of jets), nor does it lie in demanding that poor people cease having children. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals call for just this type of population control, and it doesn’t end poverty. Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg:

The real mystery, the real mystery of economic development, I would argue, is essentially Christianity. Why? Christianity contains a view of human beings as creators…

We also know that Christianity transforms people’s vision of themselves and of other people. So, this is very important; because when we come to think about things like economic development, we’re very tempted to think, ‘Well, maybe the UN has the answers,’ or ‘Maybe some obscure economist writing 60 years ago has the answers.’ Well, maybe there are some answers there. But we should not be reticent to go back and look into our tradition, this 2,000-year tradition of Christianity, which has the antecedent 2,000 years of Jewish reflection upon these issues.”

Within this 3,000-year tradition, we have marvelous insights into the dignity of the human person, of even institutions and ways of resolving problems of poverty. But above all, it gives us the ultimate reasons for why we should be concerned about these issues, because gospels tell us we need to love our neighbor as our self. We need to see Christ in the person of the poor.[emphasis added]

Calling the poor “ragamuffins” and demanding that they stop having children is not a Christ-like vision, and it does not begin to address the real issues of poverty. We need instead to see the possibility of each human, created in God’s image and likeness, and ask ourselves how we can partner with that person to begin to address the issues that lead to poverty and find creative solutions to alleviate it. We need to see beyond poverty to the possibilities, the solutions, the transformation of lives.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.