by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving Democracy, What is Wrong with Social Justice?, A Short Critique of Climate Change, Christianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.
There is little doubt that the Bible teaches we are to have compassion for the poor. Whether in the Old Testament and verses like Amos 5:11 and Zechariah 7:10 or the New Testament with verses such as Matthew 25:42-45, concern and compassion for the poor is a theme that runs throughout the Bible.
As I discuss in my book, What is Wrong with Social Justice, I believe a key passage is to be found in 1 John 3:17-18,
Whoever has earthly possessions and notices a brother in need and yet withholds his compassion from him, how can the love of God be present in him? 18Little children, we must stop expressing love merely by our words and manner of speech; we must love also in action and in truth.
While it is pretty clear how we must love in action, how can we tell if we are loving in truth? True compassion is concerned with results. It asks the question, are lives actually improved? Actions that you take that make you feel better, that allow you to feel you have done something, but which do not actually make an improvement in the lives of people, cannot really be consider compassion.
One example I discuss in my book is the issue of the minimum wage. Those opposing an increase are frequently labeled as heartless, and resistance is dismissed as resulting from corporate greed. Yet, as I write, “if one is concerned with the poor, there are several good reasons to oppose an increase in the minimum wage.”
Recently this was confirmed yet again. The last time this issue bubbled to the top of the political discussion, several cities heeded the calls of compassion for the poor and increased the minimum wage. Seattle was one such city passing a law that increases the minimum wage over time to $15/hour.
The Seattle Times reported approvingly, “Seattle City Council approves historic $15 minimum wage.” Seattle’s Mayor, Ed Murray, said “Today we have taken action that will serve as a model for the rest of the nation to follow.”
In 2016 an early study, limited to single-establishment firms, seemed to indicate that while the law may have reduced employment slightly, overall it had the intended effect of lifting the pay of low-wage workers. In short, if you actually had a job, the minimum wage helped. But if you were one of those who were unable to find work because employers could not afford to hire you at the new higher wage, the law didn’t work as well for you.
A study by the Harvard Business School analyzed 10 years of data on 30,000 restaurants and found that for every $1 increase in the minimum wage, restaurant closures increased 14%. In short, 14% more restaurants failed, causing both the business owners and employees affected to have incomes eliminated instead of increased.
Recently a more compressive study commissioned for the city of Seattle and conducted by the University of Washington found the negative effects of Seattle’s increase went beyond those who either lost their jobs, or could not find one. The study found that while wages did go up, the average number of hours worked declined. The net result was that “total payroll fell for such jobs, implying that the minimum wage ordinance lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month in 2016.”
In short, the minimum wage increase hurt those who either could not find work or lost their jobs as a result of the increase. It certainly did help those who remained employed and received the increase when their hours were not reduced. But even for those who remained employed, on average, hours were reduced to the point that the net effect was not an increase, but a reduction in wages of $125 per month.
Now some are sure to argue that this reduction just demonstrates the greed of business owners. Yet the Harvard study shows the hard economic reality owners face less they go out of business. While, given our media culture that stigmatizes business owner as evil and greedy, it is easy to make business owners into stereotypes, stereotypes that can then be callously dismissed, this is hardly a Christian viewpoint, even though it is found among many Christians. The simple facts are that business owners are people and most business fail. Many that do survive struggle. Even large corporations have ups and downs. Just look at any list of the top corporations from the 1960’s and you will see a lot of names that today are shadows of their former size and importance, and many that are gone.
1 John 3:18 says “we must love also in action and in truth.” As we do this we not only act, but we must act is ways that truly helps those in need. When it comes to social policy, the number of people affected is so large, the issues and dynamics so complex, that for any given policy there will always be some who are helped and others who are hurt, and this is not just an issue of rich and poor, but even among the very people we seek to help. Social policy is not immune to the law of unintended consequences, and true compassion is a compassion that goes beyond our intentions.