Is it Okay to Steal When You are Starving?

Working through the justices or injustices of poverty and welfare can be a like a wrestler groping at a sweaty opponent-it’s slippery!

Some, like our famous Thomas Paine, would claim that welfare for the poor is necessary for a ‘moral and humane’ society. Conversely, a 13th Century theologian claimed that the primary shortcomings of the poor is laziness, vice, and inebriation. The spectrum of who is right or not is very broad, but that does not excuse us from delving into the morality of poverty and welfare. It is easy to look down on the majority of the poor and even easier to miss the minority of that group–those who are truly in need.

Have you ever eaten out of dumpster? I have.

When I was in college, I took a class that introduced students to ministry in an urban environment. As part of the course, the students went homeless for a weekend. During this time, the following observations and questions stood out to me:

  1. The thought of stealing food comes pretty natural.
  2. Can a homeless person pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
  3. Drug and alcohol dependency makes sense.

Justifying Sin

Thirty-six hours without food in the winter time and we were on the streets. Meandering into a gas station, I began browsing around. There was no money in my pockets of course, but at least it was warm inside. Passing an aisle of food, I looked at something that looked delicious and thought, “It would be so easy to just slip this in my pocket.” A split second later, I was shocked that I even thought about such a thing! Me! a goody two shoes Christian thinking of stealing. Never needing anything in life, much less food, a meager dose of reality hit home. I was hungry. But here’s the question, “Is it okay to steal when you are starving?” How about a man who is responsible for providing for his family and he has nothing. Is it okay for him to steal for his family?

“Go Get a Job!”

Throughout this little simulation, our professor kept on telling us, “Go get a job” to simulate the vast majority of people’s opinion about the poor. It is thought that it is so simple to go and get a job when you are homeless. This constant bantering of, “go get a job” frustrated me the most. The crunch, crunch, crunch under my feet directed me to a solution. I could have walked up and down the street asking people if they wanted me to shovel their driveway of snow for some cash. In the same gray-vaporized breath, I could have asked if anyone had odd jobs for me to do. I could have tried, but due to the nature of this real-life class scenario, we weren’t allowed to do these things. But the point the professor was trying to teach us was that it is grueling and practically impossible for the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps–their bootstraps have been cut off–or so the argument went.

Alcoholism or Drunkenness?

Lastly, as part of this experience of being homeless for a weekend, I could understand why people want to escape from reality and become slaves to alcohol and drugs. The misery of life drives us into despair and the desire to leave reality is ever present. For some, it is worth the consequences–or at least they think so. But one has to think, “Does addiction lead to poverty or does poverty lead to addiction?” Could it be both? While on this adventure, a story was told about a woman who was a full-blown medical doctor. She became dependent on some narcotics they had at the hospital. Due to her addiction, she was fired and eventually became homeless, prostituted herself, and within three years she died from an overdose. My lesson I took away? It can happen to anyone, even me.

The Solutions

Poverty and welfare is not an easy subject to sort through. It is not always black and white. Stephen Pimpare, author of A People’s History of Poverty in America wrote, “Poverty is not in itself a moral failure. Our failure to understand it may be.” The validity of this statement should stretch us out of our comfort zones. Does poverty in and of itself have moral bearings and is it God-honoring to justify sin, make excuses, and not call sin, sin?

“It’s not that they can’t see the solution. They can’t see the problem.” – G.K. Chesterton

Our task is to precisely find the problem so we can accurately find solutions. Like a band of soldiers marching together with a cadence, our orthodoxy must be in step with our orthopraxy.

For Further Discussion:

Tim Challies Book Review on: ‘When Helping Hurts’

Ligonier Ministries Devotional on ‘Reasons for Poverty’


The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.