If the Church Did Its Job

During the recent debates about food stamps and the health care act I’ve heard a familiar statement repeated again: “The government is doing the church’s job.” Let’s assume the sentiment is sincere, that Good Christian wants the poor to be cared for and genuinely believes the church should do it and not the government. Whether that belief comes from political or theological convictions doesn’t matter too much right now, only that Good Christian thinks it’s the church’s job.

Counting the Cost
So how much would it cost the church to take over caring for the poor completely? What would it cost Good Christian if all the federal government’s programs to aid the poor were suddenly the church’s responsibility?

To invoke Dave Ramsey, this is a math thing. It’s not a Republican thing and it’s not a Democrat thing. It’s math. Ready to do math?

Who’s Going to Pay?
First, let’s figure out how many committed church attenders there are in America. If the church is to pay for care of the poor, that means that the cost of such programs will be paid by these folks. About 40% of Americans tell pollsters that they went to church in on any given Sunday, although only about 17% actually make it to church according to studies of actual church attendance figures. Alarmingly, this means that 23% of Americans keep getting lost on their way to church. Every week.

Let’s be generous and say that 33% of Americans are committed church attenders, represented by our friend Good Christian. He and his fellow churchgoers believe it is the church’s responsibility and not the government’s to care for the poor. Let’s try to total his bill.

Social Security and Medicare
Social Security and Medicare are the two largest entitlement programs. It’s true that only 47% of Americans pay federal income tax, but many more pay these FICA taxes. Subtracting the unemployed and people who don’t report their earnings (gangsters, babysitters, and the like), let’s say two thirds of Americans pay FICA taxes for programs that care for the poor, which is now going to be the church’s job.

So now instead of 2/3 of Americans paying to care for these poor, 1/3 of Americans (churchgoers like Good Christian) will do it. That means that Good Christian will have to pay double to cover his portion as well as his neighbor’s (let’s call his neighbor Terrible Heathen).

Actually, it’s worse than that for Good Christian. Right now on his pay stub he sees 7.65% of his gross income go to FICA, but what he doesn’t see is that his employer matches that with a 7.65% tax on his gross income that it has to pay for FICA. Self-employed people are used to the sticker shock of paying 15.3% of gross income to FICA. Since it’s now the church’s responsibility to care for the poor, the widow, the disabled, the orphan, etc., that means the government will no longer collect the other half of FICA taxes from employers.

So Good Christian, who wants to care for the elderly at least as well as the government does, is now going to have to cover his current share plus his employer’s share plus Terrible Heathen’s share plus Terrible Heathen’s employer’s share. In other words, Good Christian will have to pay quadruple what he now sees deducted from his gross pay, or 30.6% of his gross income, just to keep the revenue levels the same so that lower income folks can be cared for. And that’s not all!

Income Tax
Good Christian will still have to pay his income taxes, but what about the portion of federal income tax that goes to programs like Medicaid, food stamps, head start programs, housing subsidies, and other programs that benefit low income folks? Since they are no longer the government’s job, but the need still exists, Good Christian and his fellow churchgoers will have to pick up the tab. So right now 53% of Americans pay income tax, plus the additional taxes that businesses pay to the federal government. But whatever portion of that revenue goes to programs for the poor will no longer be collected by the government, and the difference will be covered by Good Christian and his fellow churchgoers (again, 33% of the population).

Let’s say 25% of income and business tax revenue goes to care for the poor, and the other 75% goes for defense, infrastructure, presidential motorcades, etc. Good Christian will see his income tax bill decrease by 25%, but he’ll need to put his savings in the offering plate so that poor kids can eat. He’ll need to fund the church so that the church can run the programs the government had been running. Not only that, Good Christian will need to make up the difference of what the government used to force Terrible Heathen, his neighbor, to contribute to programs for the poor. Assuming that as neighbors Good Christian and Terrible Heathen make about the same amount of money, let’s say Good Christian will have to contribute his 25% savings as well as Terrible Heathen’s 25%. In other words, Good Christian will feel like his income tax rate actually went up 25%.

Now, Good Christian is going to have to give a lot of money to his church. A. LOT. That is, if he actually wants the poor to be cared for. So he may feel like he is going way above and beyond a tithe (10% of gross income). In reality, Good Christian (if he is the average American Christian) right now only “tithes” 2.5%. We’ll generously assume that’s 2.5% of gross income, not net income. That 2.5% pays for church buildings, staff, youth group trips, insurance, and all the other expenses of church programs and activities. If Good Christian doesn’t continue to tithe his 2.5%, his church won’t have these things. So we’ll say he keeps giving this 2.5% of his gross income so that his church will continue to appeal to him even though it also cares for the poor.

Totaling It Up
So let’s see how Good Christian would fare if the government stopped doing the church’s job. …Oh, and the church started doing its job. Can’t forget that part. Nobody’s saying we should forget that part, right?

We’ll put Good Christian at the median income level of $75,000 for a family of four paying 5.32% in income tax (according to taxpolicycenter.org). Here’s what his financial outlook is right now:

Gross Income – FICA (7.65%) – Income tax (5.32%) – Tithe (2.5%) = Net Income
$75,000 – $5,737.50 – $3,990 – $1,875 = $63,397.50

Now let’s see what Good Christian would pay if the church started doing its job caring for the poor and the government stopped.

Gross Income – FICA (30.6%) – Income tax (6.65%) – Tithe (2.5%) = Net Income
$75,000 – $22,950 – $4,987.50 – $1,875 = $45,187.50

If the government stops caring for the poor and the church does it, Good Christian will see his net income drop by $18,210 per year. Let’s assume, though, that the church can do a much better job of caring for the poor, eliminating waste and fraud, etc. Let’s say the church can be at least as effective at caring for the poor, but at half the cost of what it takes the government. Even then, Good Christian sees his net income drop by $9,105 per year. That’s the price of convictions, I guess.

There’s no way around this for Good Christian. If he agrees that the poor are to be cared for, and he believes it’s the church’s job and not the government’s, then he believes that his family should pay over $9,000 more next year so that the poor are cared for. And that’s being generous beyond measure in saying the church could provide equivalent benefits to the poor in America at half the cost the government pays now.

So let’s be absolutely clear: If you say the church should be doing the job of caring for the poor, you are necessarily saying that your family should personally be paying more–thousands more, and perhaps tens of thousands more. It’s not a liberal thing or a conservative thing. It’s just math. No one is exempt from doing math. Dave Ramsey is adamant about that. If 1/3 of Americans (churchgoers) are going to pay for what 1/2 – 2/3 thirds of Americans plus all American businesses are now paying for, they’re going to have to pay more. This is not a plan that will save Good Christian any money. It will cost him much, much more.

Bottom line: You can’t possibly say, “The government is doing the church’s job,” and mean, “I’d like to have more money in my pocket.” That only happens if no one cares for the poor. And that’s not what anyone is saying, right? Right?