“Below the poverty level.”
It’s easy to figure out who is poor and who is not when you use that as a reference. Currently, in the United States, if you are a family of four and earning less than $24,250 a year, you are—officially—poor.
But is it that simple? What is poverty? Who is poor? How should those who are not poor, particularly Christians, respond to those who are?
And what new things does Pope Francis bring to the age-old fight against poverty?
These were some of the questions on the minds of 100 or so people who gathered in New York last week under the auspices of a Vatican foundation that deals with the Church’s social teaching and how it is lived in the real world.
The Sept. 22-23 meeting of the Centesimus Annus Pro-Pontifice Foundation (CAPP-USA) came toward the end of the United Nations General Assembly and a year after Pope Francis’ visit to New York, Washington and Philadelphia.
It was while standing at the podium at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2015, that Francis urged world leaders to help the poor become “dignified agents of their own destiny.” CAPP-USA took that as their theme for the conference, exploring “practical examples and new proposals” for answering the Pope’s call for escaping poverty.
The event, held at Fordham University and co-sponsored by its Graduate Program in International Political Economy and Development, was graced by a number of Church leaders, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State. His address was read out by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, however, as Cardinal Parolin was under the weather and had to leave the next day for Colombia for the signing of the peace treaty with FARC and later in the week accompany the Pope to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
“Pope Francis’s concern for the poor is well known,” said Cardinal Parolin, who was in New York for the UN General Assembly. “He chose the name of a saint who became poor so that he could serve the poor. He wants a Church that is poor and works for the poor.”
The cardinal pointed out that the Church “acts in accordance with the preferential option for the poor by defending the right to life.” He quoted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who said in the 2009 World Day of Peace message, “The extermination of millions of unborn children, in the name of the fight against poverty, actually constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings.”
In the estimation of Archbishop Auza, there are three causes of extreme poverty: the “globalization of indifference,” a consumerism that blocks out the voice of God, and a “ferocious idolatry of money,” he said in his own talk.
Concerning the first cause, the archbishop commented, “If the stock market falls, everyone is concerned, but if an old person dies of exposure, there is no news about it. The first antidote to this first cause of poverty is spiritual renewal, repairing our moral compass, so that we’ll be more sensitive to the needs of others.”
The Church, Archbishop Auza said, calls for “integral development,” which includes solidarity, a preferential option for the poor, values that can make a person’s life dignified, and “an economy that serves, not an economy that kills.”
Solidarity, he said, is contrary to individualism. It is “thinking and acting in terms of community gesture and encounter.”
“One golden thread that unifies and inspires all of [Pope Francis’s] discourses is the culture of encounter,” he said. “Solidarity is really encounter.”
The archbishop clarified that the three things that give a person dignity are, in Spanish, “tierra, techo y trabajo,” or in English, “land, lodging and labor.”
Poverty is much more than lack of money or income, speakers agreed. Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, outlined its complexity with examples she has witnessed around the world. Poverty includes a lack of food; poor health; an inability to care for children, and a prevalence of violence.
“You can’t think of the future because you are only focused on survival,” was one illustrative response to a 1999 World Bank survey about poverty, she said. “I’m afraid they will kill my son for something as irrelevant as a snack,” was another.
The multidimensional aspect of poverty makes it challenging for charities, NGOs and governments to adequately respond, Alkire said.
One set of panelists consisted of bankers who are members of CAPP and offered some ideas on how to address various aspects of poverty. Robert A. Annibale, global director of Citi Community Development and Citi Inclusive Finance, spoke about how businesses can be agents of change through “mission-related investing.” Josef Bonnici, a former governor of the Bank of Malta, suggested the founding of a “voluntary solidarity fund” to address rising income inequality. Such a fund would consist of contributions from individuals and corporations who embrace the concept of solidarity.
Eduardo Jose Marques Maia de Almeida, of the Inter-American Development Bank, spoke about development finance as a way for countries and individuals to help the poor. The main bottleneck, he said, is not finance, but political will. He suggested the Church might serve as a “good will broker” that could design programs and finance projects. The Church is best to lead because of its credibility, unbiased stance and embrace of the “culture of encounter,” he said.