The economic stimulus big give

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I will receive $1,800 this May. The IRS will pay me $1,200 because I’m married and $600 for my children. The money comes with no strings. And therein lies my quandary—how will I use my economic stimulus payment?

Through the Economic Stimulus Act, Washington wants 130 million recipients to spend $168 billion in an attempt to bolster the economy. The prescription is consumption.

The message is striking. The American economic engine requires an ever-increasing rate of consumption to remain functional. Good Americans are good consumers because when they stop consuming, the system fails. Like a junkie in search of a fix, the economy needs an injection of cash.

Is consumption really a viable answer? I find two problems with this approach: one practical, one theological.

Practically speaking, consumption itself has created the current situation. Economists agree the downturn is largely due to the subprime mortgage crisis. People overextended themselves, sometimes through the influence of less-than-reputable lenders, by taking on more debt than they could afford. The desire to buy and consume trumped thoughtful discretion. A credit card crisis may be the next domino to fall. The Federal Reserve reports that Americans owe over $900 billion dollars on credit cards. More consumption, and thus more debt, hardly seems a logical resolution to our long-term economic challenges.

Then there’s the theological problem with the consumption prescription. The Bible provides many examples of appropriate economic practices. Soon after the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, God instructed his people to observe the Jubilee, a full year, every 50 years: all debt was forgiven, slaves were set free and all property reverted to its original owner. This functioned as an economic stabilizer, a kind of equalizer. Old Testament prophets routinely spoke against unjust, self-centered economic practices that disregarded the rights and needs of the poor, especially the widow, the orphan and the alien.

Jesus commanded his followers not to store up earthly treasures and to deny themselves in service to others: “Freely you have received, freely give.” The early church sold property, shared possessions and gave generously to all in their community that had need. The Apostle Paul encouraged members of wealthy churches to sacrifice for the needs of poorer congregations. While wealth is not wrong, there are many Scriptural directives against unrestrained self-indulgence.

I tell my nine-year old son there are three things he can do with his money: spend, save and share. The dominant message we currently hear is to spend the rebate for the good of the economy. A few call for saving: pay off a credit card, pay down a mortgage or loan, bolster a savings account. But there is almost no discussion of sharing. Might this be our chance to give others what has been given us?

I have discovered a few intriguing alternatives for sharing the stimulus payment:

  • U.S. Rep. Brian Baird from Vancouver, Washington, suggests using rebates on environmentally-friendly home improvements, thus benefiting the greater community.
  • In a letter to the editor, a Massachusetts newspaper reader urges people to donate to local public schools, since most districts are suffering budget crises of their own.
  • Nine churches in Seattle formed a collective fund so members of their congregations could donate all or portions of their rebates. The collection will go to local agencies.

So how will I use my stimulus payment? My wife and I have many “wants” but we have few “needs.” We have chosen to take seriously Paul’s admonition to “be content.” A plasma TV would be nice, but isn’t necessary. Paying down the loan on our solar electric system would be helpful, but not essential. A vacation would bring our family together, but so could donating to and serving at a homeless shelter. We decided to use our entire rebate on three projects: an urban ministry in Fresno, a transitional home for homeless families in Pasadena and an HIV/AIDS clinic in Nigeria (I might be accused of being un-American for sending my rebate overseas, but isn’t that where money from the purchase of a car or TV will go anyway?).

A study at the University of British Columbia uncovered a charity-happiness link. Researchers confirmed people who spend money on others are happier than those who don’t. Pro-social spending brings a variety of internal benefits and rewards. In May, many of us will get an opportunity to share in these rewards, and to experience one of the most famous assertions of Christ—it truly is “more blessed to give than to receive.”

Tim Neufeld is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University and on a pastoral staff in a local congregation. When not in the classroom or leading worship, he can often be found blogging on issues of church and culture at www.timneufeld.blogs.com.

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