Should science do more for the poor?

As I re-enter blogging after a two-week absence, here is Ross Douthat critiquing the idea,  advanced by Robert Putnam and President Obama, that churches should do more for the poor:

“Over the last 30 years,” Harvard’s Robert Putnam told The Washington Post, “most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for … It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.”

President Obama’s version, delivered when he shared a stage with Putnam at Georgetown University, was nuanced but similar in thrust: “Despite great caring and concern,” the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue like abortion.”

It would be too kind to call these comments wrong; they were ridiculous. Not only because (as Putnam acknowledged) believers personally give abundantly to charity, but because institutionally the churches of America use “all their resources” in ways that completely belie the idea that they’re obsessed with culture war.

As Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard pointed out, “Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars.” Whereas the budgets of American religious charities and schools and hospitals and other nonprofits are tabulated in the tens of billions.

I wonder if we can apply a similar argument against scientists. Instead of worrying about all this evolution stuff, why not focus on helping the poor? And unlike with churches, most funding is not for poverty alleviation.

Will try to get back to more substantive writing shortly.


  1. Yes, science should do more for the poor, but the question is to vague and ambiguous. What does science mean? A better questions is should I, as a scientist in my current position and stage in life, do more for the poor. Or should I as a university president allocate more research funding toward poverty-alleviation research and work? When you put it like that it forces people to answer the question in a way that brings them closer to action (doesn’t necessarily mean they will take it).

    Secondly, nice piece above. Churches give a lot to charity, but let’s nuance this argument a bit which a purely data-perspective is missing. I grew up in churches and have been through churches of many different types. The loudest churches in evangelical church circles shout and write, not about poverty issues, but about homosexuality and abortion. From the pulpit you are never encouraged to vote in ways that benefit the lowest class, but in ways that affect homosexuality and abortion. You are told, from the pulpit, that particular politicians are either in support or defeat of God based on those two issues or that voting Republican is godly. So the vitriol is focused on those issues. Now if you go to a more progressive church or one that focuses on the “social gospel,” you might have heard differently. But I’m specifically speaking of the Evangelical churches and today, I have to say the Evangelical Right churches because the meaning of Evangelical is changing.

    A second point about this is poverty maintenance versus poverty alleviation. It really isn’t enough to give to charity which makes the giver feel great and the receiver feel great temporarily with no relationship formed in between. And since poverty is the lack of relationships (I can unpack that later), the situation and dependency is maintained. Giving to charity is nice but often it is managing the situation. There are very few situations that are working to eliminate homelessness or poverty which is a different kind of work and one that is mostly done without giving money. There are even many organizations that claim to work to end poverty, just simply managing it. So it’s a different type of work.

    The work to end poverty is the one we should be doing.

    1. “The loudest churches in evangelical church circles shout and write, not about poverty issues, but about homosexuality and abortion.”

      I would guess that’s because poverty alleviation is uncontroversial.

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