Jerry Falwell is Wrong About the Poor

There are several head scratching quotes from Jerry Falwell, Jr. in his New Year’s Day interview with Joe Heims in the Washington Post. One such quote which caught my eye is this:

Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

While job creation might be out of reach for many low income people, charitable giving is something the poor do often. As Relevant magazine pointed out, Christian college president Falwell appears to have forgotten Jesus’ teaching about the widow and her few cents. Beyond Falwell’s insensitivity to the Bible, he is wrong about the poor and charitable giving. Actually, low income people as a group give a lot and on average they give more as a percentage of their income than rich people.

Given Falwell’s role as a fund raiser for his college, I am surprised he isn’t aware of this. In philanthropy literature, the link between income bracket and giving is well known. Although the truly poor don’t often itemize charitable gifts, lower income brackets are responsible for significant amounts of charitable giving compared to higher brackets. This is especially true of religious giving.

A 2007 Indiana University study found that donors making under 100,000/year gave nearly $60 Billion to religious organizations compared to $8.6 Billion given by donors making over $1 million/year. The per donor gift was much smaller in the lower income group, but together the lower income group represented nearly 60% of all giving to religious causes. In contrast to Falwell’s claim, that’s some real volume. No doubt Falwell’s college gets many widow’s mites on a monthly basis to help keep those doors open.

I realize that $100,000/year is not poor. However, this bracket is more likely to include large families with limited resources. As noted above, people in the lowest income groups don’t often itemize contributions and so it is harder to capture those data via the Indiana U. methodology. However, other research supports the contention that lower income persons give more as a percentage of income than the rich.

For instance, a 2014 study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that the wealthy reduced their giving during the economic downtown while lower and middle income donors increased giving. The lowest income bracket – those making less than $25,000/year – increased their giving by 17% from 2006 to 2012. The lowest income group demonstrated the highest percentage increase of all groups.

The 2014 study wasn’t unusual. Much prior research has found that those in low income brackets give more as a percentage of income than the wealthy. According to researcher Roger Barnett, “Research in the area has established that, on the average, high income donors give more to charitable causes than do people with low incomes. However, in Britain (and in the United States) the poor have for decades been observed to donate proportionately higher shares of their income to charity than the financially better off (emphasis in the original) (p. 520).

Falwell, Jr.’s college has been helped out in the past by big gifts (e.g., self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon) so perhaps he is influenced by the big donors. However, as a group, the poor do give and they give a lot. He is wrong and shouldn’t spread this misinformation. If I were a low income donor to Liberty University, I would have to rethink my contribution.


31 thoughts on “Jerry Falwell is Wrong About the Poor”

  1. I’d add that many of the poor folks volunteer their time and share their wealth and housing and food with others. Much of that doesn’t translate into monetary donations but it if did it would equal quite a bit of money. Think of all the wealthy folks who live two people per McMansion and go on lavish vacations and hire caretakers and nannies rather than share or volunteer their time.

  2. Trust me when I say I’m no fan of Falwell, but I think he may be getting a bad rap here. While the poor can (and do!) give money to charity, simply by virtue of their being poor the “reach” of their giving is limited. The error Falwell may be committing is to conflate “impact of giving” with “significance of giving”. In one sense the widow’s mite was just a mite; it didn’t do much. In another sense it was huge.

    1. Don’t really see the bad rap here. Yes, you can certainly argue that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the more wealth we have to spread around the better, but there’s a dozen different ways to say that without it reading like it was taken directly from the prosperity gospel playbook.

      He’s also just plain wrong, as Warren says. Indeed, it’s very likely that the charity given by poor people has a much greater immediate effect than the donations from the wealthy, given much of it is likely given from one poor person in a community to another — a neighbor, friend, or family member.

  3. I really thought Mr. Falwell would never top the outrageousness of the comment below… but he may have actually succeeded with this interview.
    “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” he said Monday.”

  4. “A poor person never gave anyone a job.”

    Of course it’s not our normally preferred, or first, thought in reply to this, but the poor person really does “give someone a job.” They give a “job” – a valuable task, a valuable opportunity – to bless one who “has” and is willing to obey God’s instruction to share, to sacrifice, to care for, someone in need.

    It does a person great good – in character formation – to be in a position to have to humbly accept another’s assistance. And without the needy, what good is all that the “not needy” worth? It exists to be shared, to assist.

  5. I read this article also and was jarred by the statement. Thanks for drawing it to general attention.
    I suggest that one, the more money people have, the more they (feel they) need, and are therefore less likely to give it away. I’ve experienced this. Two, poor people are in touch with other poor and struggling people and have daily opportunities to lend a helping hand or dollar. They intimately understand financial struggle and need and are in a position to directly help. They do not worry as the rich tend to do whether their intended gift will be tax deductible or not.

  6. You could say, “Jerry Falwell is wrong,” and not have to add another thing.

  7. That interview was incomprehensible to me as Christian. I literally could not understand Falwell’s point of view, and I think I’ve been around the conservative Christian block (actually, I live there). I do think the Christian left is guilty of continually conflating Christ’s commands to individuals and the role/priorities of government, to the point of being gross theocrats whenever it serves their political agenda. They need to read less Jim Wallis and more Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of the Christian right would never read 20 pages of “Moral Man and Immoral Society” before throwing it into the fire. Then they will throw your copy and the library’s copy into the fire.

    1. Why do you always feel you have to attack liberal Christians every time you criticize your conservative brethren? You did it in the previous post with your completely irrelevant swipe at Planned Parenthood, and again here with a dig that’s completely irrelevant to the subject at hand.

      Of course, you can do as you please within the rules of this blog, but it comes across as very defensive and gives the impression you think liberals are incapable of finding anything wrong with the way they do things, which as any liberal here will tell you, is completely untrue.

      But again, I am risking being guilty of assisting you in derailing this thread, so I will stop here…

      1. Because that’s where I am right now in my own personal development, so that’s what I see in everything. That’s the honest truth. For quite a few years now, I have listened to and read a steady stream of material that I disagree with, sometimes strongly. What it has done (for me) is demonstrated that both the left and right are often the same car in different colors of paint. And they are both a lemon of a car, because they waste a lot of energy trying to vilify one another using precisely the same tactics, and going nowhere while doing it.

        I thought my swipe at Planned Parenthood was completely deserved and also relevant to my point in that post. Does it not seem odd to you that you are suggesting that I am defensive when you yourself are so obviously and sharply provoked by my remarks?

  8. I will continue to harp on a very basic fact this year. That is that Narcissism is not a characteristic of God’s leaders He chooses and it is not at all a Christ-like characteristic. The drive that one is superior to others and needs to be in the spotlight with a direct hotline to God is not something that the good New Testament leaders did or held to. God set up a theocracy of a sort in Israel that was taken over by narcissists. Jesus showed them no mercy and was ruthless in calling them names that fit like the children of Satan they actually are. Selfish ambition is still a sin and little has changed in close to two millennia since Christ went away. I could care less what Falwell or others like him say. They are not humble, so they are not speaking the Truth of God. Narcissism in religious and political figures do not speak truth nor do they live the truth. We need to pay more attention to our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ and what the Bible clearly and plainly says.

    1. Good evening Mr. Jeseperson,
      It also seems to be accompanied be the worship of the Golden Calf Of Success and wealth.

    2. “The drive that one is superior to others and needs to be in the
      spotlight with a direct hotline to God is not something that the good
      New Testament leaders did or held to.”

      This is a very important point. The ministry of the apostles back in the day can only be continued by us accepting the discipline of being members of the Church. We can indeed be agents of great things, but only as the Church, the Body of Christ.

  9. I suppose Mr. Falwell missed the story Paul tells in 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 about the Macedonian churches that were in extreme affliction and poverty, and still managed to give generously to the poor in other churches. They gave, to borrow Falwell’s words, something of “real volume”.

  10. I remember reading this the other day and thinking about the Prosperity Gospel peddlers on TV and elsewhere. The idea that God loves the rich (otherwise they wouldn’t be rich!) and the poor are simply those who have little to give because they haven’t accessed God’s power yet is one of the main tenets in this religion. A “Poverty Mentality” is always the boogeyman in these situations.

    And yet Falwell reminds us that there’s a Baptist/cessationist/Fundamentalist side of the Prosperity Gospel as well: The idea that the fittest and richest hold us together and are destined to be our leaders as opposed to the poorer. Obviously it doesn’t take an M.Div to discredit Falwell on this, but this idea that the poor contribute little is a sign that Falwell sees Prosperity as a sign of the Lord at work. You see this in the “Leadership” culture in evangelicalism, the heavy emphasis on “Influence” or even the groan-worthy “Making God Famous.” The poor aren’t going to be famous, and that’s part of the reason why the Kingdom of God is with them so often.

    And (mostly) unrelated for Dr. Thockmorton: If you feel like following up on EMF/K-Love — They just drastically changed the format of their “Air1” stations to Worship Music after consulting with a few influential donors (according to their FB page). Other donors who liked their old format are not happy since it’s basically the same thing as K-LOVE and are letting them know.

    1. “The idea that God loves the rich (otherwise they wouldn’t be rich!)”

      No no, you have that all wrong. God only loves the rich conservatives. The rich liberals got that way because they made a deal with the devil.

  11. Indeed it’s high time Falwell read his Bible (and then took it seriously)! And, as you suggest, Warren, Luke 21 : 1 – 4 would be a good start.

    As you know, I have been in contact with refugees in / from East Africa for some few years now. I never cease to be amazed by the generosity shown by some people who themselves have next to nothing …

    Falwell’s basic problem appears to me to be that he doesn’t understand what is charity.

    1. Falwell’s basic problem appears to me to be that he doesn’t understand what is charity.

      I don’t think he even understands what is Christianity.

    2. Falwell and his U.S. White Evangelical followers do not understand Jesus. Their own words and actions reveal it quite clearly.

      Still wondering about all the faculty at Liberty University who continue to quietly observe Falwell’s behavior. Are their 30 pieces of silver worth how history will remember them?

    3. Wouldn’t help for him to read that – the widow’s might wasn’t “of any real volume.”

    4. Falwell has read his Bible. He understands it very well. His Bible just happens to be the Republican play book. And part of the Republican orthodoxy is that it’s the rich people that matter in society. They are the job creators. The hard workers. If we want the economy to grow, we have to cut their taxes. We have to give them more money so they can invest it and if they feel so generous, create jobs for the rest of us, out of the goodness of their hearts. And then they should be thanked and lauded.

      The opposite side of that coin is that the poor are lazy. They spend all their money on drugs and iPhones or else they would have plenty of money for important things like healthcare and college. Also, they’re takers, always looking for a handout from the government to solve their problems. And cheaters too, who find ways to game the system and achieve unearned benefits. We’re always hearing stories of welfare fraud from Republicans. *Those* people wouldn’t give to charity would they?

      Oh sorry, but that only applies to the urban poor. If you’re rural poor, you’re salt of the earth and have no money because you’re the victim of Liberal Elites’ socialist agenda and immigrants leaching off the system. Those people would love to give to charity, if only the government didn’t take so much of their money.

      So, of course, in his mind, it’s the rich who contribute the most to charity. They are the most generous, the most likely to give, the most able to give, and to give the largest amount. it’s just common sense.

      1. Love the satire!

        I should, of course, have said “the Bible” or, better still “the [Holy] Scriptures”, not “his Bible”.

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