Wealth, Poverty and the Welfare State

Books reviewed:

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today edited by Malcolm Brown

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg

Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies

Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition by James Bailey

Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? by Barry Knight

The Populist Temptation by Barry Eichengreen

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem & Barry Asmus

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes

Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology edited by Stephen Spencer

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell.


Christian viewpoints:

We have reviewed various books that consider, from different perspectives, aspects of the theology of wealth and poverty, including the appropriate Christian response to poverty:

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (published 2014). This is a collection of essays mainly from a US viewpoint addressing the question how Christians should address poverty. It is not a systematic treatment of this subject and it has deficiencies (including, in some places, an overly polemical style) but it is challenging and interesting and should inspire reflection and further reading.

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg (published 1999) is described by its author as a “biblical theology of material possessions”.   It is not an easy read and its analysis of every single New Testament passage relevant to its subject may leave the reader feeling exhausted but it is an important book that deserves to be read even if this takes time.

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus (published 2013) sets out, in the words of its authors, “to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world”.  It is a flawed book and its defects may well alienate some readers.  Nonetheless, there is enough that is good in the book to make it worth reading.  It contains a robust defence of the free market (including its moral benefits) whilst also stressing the institutional aspects of any solution to poverty.

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera (published 2005) addresses a timeless question: why would an omnipotent and benevolent God permit evil? Barrera is both a theologian and an economist and he interacts with Malthus and others, viewing material poverty as a moral evil that God wants us to eradicate through the redistribution and transfers of wealth to the poor. It assumes some prior exposure to metaphysics and is heavy going in parts but it is important in seeking to understand economics in the context of God’s will.

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today edited by Malcolm Brown (published 2014) comprises an four essays which wrestle with the idea that there is a distinctive Anglican social theology.  The essays are of high quality and the introduction and conclusion of the editor are helpful but the book’s intended audience is unclear and there is a danger that it may prove to be too abstract and theologically dense for politicians or those engaged in practical social action and too general for theologians.

Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology edited by Stephen Spencer (published 2017) has a similar subject focus but is very different.  It largely comprises adapted versions of papers presented at a conference in January 2017.  The papers are properly scholarly but lively and the book provides a challenging but good introduction to Anglican Social Theology for those who know relatively little about it.

In Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition (published 2010) James Bailey argues that public policy in relation to poverty has placed too little emphasis on assets and savings. He uses concepts in Catholic Social Thought to build his case, including Catholic teaching on ownership, material well-being and the common good.  In parts, many will take issue with some of Bailey’s more ideologically inclined statements and, in parts, the book is US-centric but it is clear and well researched, promotes an under-explored thesis and is a worthwhile read.


Secular viewpoints:

We have reviewed several books that consider modern issues from an historical perspective.  Two of these examine the underlying reasons for wealth and poverty and one that considers the issue of populism:

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell (revised edition published 2016) is overlong and largely repeats things that its author has been saying for many years. However, it is worth reading as a robust and systematic attack on the prevailing liberal approach to the tackling of poverty that is supported by a wealth (but not an overwhelming quantity) of quantitative and qualitative material. It could be read alongside Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few, which presents what might be called the standard left of centre approach (see our reviews relating to “Capitalism”).

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes (published 1998) is a modern day classic (and our review is thus an exception to our normal principle of not reviewing the “classics”).  It considers what makes nations and peoples rich and what makes them poor from an historical perspective, focusing on culture as a key determinant.  All subsequent discussions of this subject have had to interact with it (e.g. it is frequently referred to in Wealth, Poverty and Politics and The Poverty of Nations). It is a “must read” for anyone who wishes seriously to consider the causes of wealth and poverty and, fortunately, its style and approach makes it accessible to all serious readers.

The Populist Temptation:  Economic Grievance and Political Reaction by Barry Eichengreen (published in 2018) aims to look at Western history in order to identify the economic, social and political circumstances under which populism tends to take hold together with the most effective policies to combat it.  Eichengreen’s view that government action and regulation is the solution is open to challenge but the book contains much that is likely to enhance the reader’s understanding of populism and provides much needed historical perspective.


The Welfare State and Philanthropy:

A number of the books referred to above (particularly those from a Christian perspective) include some consideration of the approach to poverty and its relief from the point of view of ideas, morality or practical historic practice.  In addition, we have reviewed several books that are devoted to this these issues:

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska (published in 2006) looks at the voluntary provision of social services by Christians in the UK in the nineteenth century and the decline in that provision and of Christianity itself since then.  It has a number of failings but it is engaging and an eye opener in relation to the historic extent of voluntary action. Any discussion of the Welfare State today needs to take account of what Prochaska describes and interact with his arguments.

Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians by Gertrude Himmelfarb is now quite old (published 1991) and it is not an easy read but it is worth reading.  It considers how the Victorian era understood the moral ideas and concepts of poverty and compassion and responded to them both practically and intellectually.  The Victorians are not presented as a solution to today’s problems but those who wish to participate in the debate about the possible solutions would do well to consider the ideas and concepts that Himmelfarb analyses.

Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? by Barry Knight (published in 2017) comes at the issue of poverty from a left of centre perspective. It considers the nature of a good society without poverty and the way of building such a society.  It underestimates that transformative power of free enterprise and overestimates that benefits of central government but it refrains from being overtly propagandistic and it is a useful contribution to the discussion on poverty in the UK.

The subject of Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies (published 2016) is much narrower. It considers issues associated with UK (and, to a lesser extent, US) philanthropy and its main (though not exclusive) focus is on philanthropy as a means of tackling poverty. It contains a good historical overview of its subject and is worth reading, not least in order to understand the attacks on philanthropy and philanthropists that have, rightly or wrongly, been made over the years. Some of its underlying assumptions are unstated and it needs to be read with care but it is both interesting and important in the context of our overall response to poverty.