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On Poverty

On Poverty Zoriah Miller

Zoriah Miller

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 07/21/14

Erroneous ideas on how to help the poor are a major cause of the problem.

At Jerusalem, St. Paul was admonished to be “mindful of the poor.” He was “happy” to do so. He also thought he should work so he would not be a burden on others. We are often advised to “identify” ourselves with the poor. Is a poor man helped or insulted when someone tells him that he wants to “identify” with him? A well-off man who “identifies” with the poor will seem condescending to the poor man who suspects that the man is merely pretending. The poor want not to be poor. They are not helped by those who, even with the best of intentions, merely identify or pretend.

While some think that everyone ought to be poor in principle as riches are dangerous, half the turmoil in the world concerns controversy over the two questions: “Why are the poor ‘poor’?” and “How do we not be poor?”. Major causes of poverty arise from unworkable or erroneous ideas about how to help the poor. “Wanting” to help the poor is not necessarily to help them. It depends on the workability of what we advise, suggest, or endow.

Poverty is not merely a question of need but of ideas. Indeed, need-poverty is usually a product of poverty caused by lack of ideas. Well-intentioned ideas, however, do not in practice often work to alleviate poverty. Intention and good will are not enough. All the “identification” with the poor in the world will not help them unless the identifiers know, and the poor know, what causes them to be not poor. If the poor knew this reason and were disciplined enough to follow it, they would soon not be poor. The vast reduction of poverty in the world in recent decades has occurred because of this knowledge and the discipline it takes to put it into practice. Though we need public order and law, the worst way to help the poor is to turn over the task of helping them to a government and its bureaucracy. This move will usually result in a political control of the poor. The poor will continue to be poor but now dependent on a dole of government. This way is little better than a modern form of serfdom.

We are also told that the poor would “always” be with us. Certainly there will always be those who think that, relative to others, they are deprived of what others have and of what they are “owed”. They think themselves to be comparatively poor even if they possess many things. But modern economists do not think this is wholly true—that poverty cannot be basically eliminated. In fact, the number of poor in the world, as a percentage of the world’s population, has rapidly declined in recent decades. China, India, and much of the world have learned not to be poor. The face of poverty is a rapidly changing thing. The poor in many countries are rather well off compared to poor in more destitute countries. Poverty is thus often relative to what we are comparing it with.


The question of poverty cannot be totally disassociated from the question of envy. Envy allows us to feel poor when someone more successful than we are appears next door. And not everyone wants to be or needs to be rich. A sufficiency or comfortable wealth is often to be preferred to much wealth. One can be very wealthy without being unjust. He can in fact be most generous to others. Wealth generates wealth. Savings when invested can lead to wealth. The generation of new wealth is always to be preferred to a theory of redistribution of existing wealth. The usual effect of confiscating and redistributing the goods of the wealthy is to make everyone poor. Through unwise taxes and other disincentives to penalize those who produce new ideas and goods is to undermine the motives for producing new ideas and products. Man has to learn and distribute most of what he needs and wants.

Paul also said that he who would not work, “neither let him eat.” This blunt admonition sounds cruel to us today. We routinely feed those who will not work. They have a “right” to be taken care of, whatever they do. We take great pains to see that everyone eats whether he works or not. Yet, the problem of what are known as “freeloaders,” —that is those who know how to work a system without actually doing anything—plagues every economy. In the modern welfare state, not a few have found that, by government largess, they can live better by not working than they can by working. Unemployment becomes a function of the ability of receiving more income from not working than from working.

We are told that the unemployed want to work. So they need jobs. What causes jobs to exist? Numerous jobs exist that many will not take. Immigration is often the response to this factor. People from other countries are glad to have jobs that no one in our country wants to do. Some speak of having a “right” to a job what is worthy of their status. This can sound like the Indian caste system wherein certain jobs are reserved for specific castes. And can there be jobs that produce things that no one wants or needs? Socialist governments are often responsible for keeping goods in production that no one wants so that they can employ people at government expense. Are there things that we better produce whether we like it or not? Not infrequently, arms belong to this category, unless we are so utopian that we need not worry about possible enemies or crimes arising from our own citizens.

Aristotle once remarked that slavery was the result of the need of certain jobs being done but no one was willing to do them. So slavery was established to have them done. He added, that if we could invent certain machines to do this necessary work, slavery would not be necessary. This is largely what has happened. One can argue that the abolition of slavery was due more to the fact that more efficient ways were invented to do what slaves did than it was to political movements for its abolition. We obviously live in a world today wherein machines of the most sophisticated sort are doing the jobs that once belonged to ordinary people seeking jobs. The invention and operation of these machines, of course, do cause other, usually more sophisticated, jobs to exist. But it may be in many cases that we no longer really need as many classic-type jobs are there are people looking for them.

The question of poverty is often charged with emotion. If we know how to solve the poverty question, why is it not solved? The answer to this question is, at bottom, because economics does not explain all of what man is. Economics addresses itself to wealth, is production and distribution. Moreover, poverty and its alleviation because a justification for the lives of many who see no other purpose to human life but temporal well-being. Helping the poor is often a justification for social and political power that is based on the claim to be able to solve the problems of poverty. The poor, in this sense, are needed to justify the actions in their behalf. It is not the poor who work their own way out of poverty, but the government or ideology that does it for them.

Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a book touching on the issue of poverty in the 19th century. They then distinguished between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Christ’s admonition “the poor will always be with us” touched the same problem. That is, some people because of failed societies, sickness, moral problems, or lack of will or intelligence will always need help. Christianity does not ask them to anything more for themselves than whatever they can do. Basically, they need that help we sometimes call charity, that is, a help that does not ask for any return except perhaps some gratitude. But most of mankind need not be poor. The kind of help here is what leads them to care for themselves.

With this latter group, the focus should not be so much that of my taking care of the poor, but of aiding the poor to take care of themselves. But, again, not all advice on helping the poor works, so there is a real question of morality, politics, and economics involved here. “Identifying” with the poor is not enough and may well be harmful if ineffective or bad advice is given. We will not help the poor or anyone else, unless we love them. But just because we love someone, it does not follow that how we show this love is a feasible way to help the poor.

Many people’s focus on helping the poor is immediate help. This is good. But the more important issue is long term—what really reduces and eliminates poverty. This approach not only reaches more people in the long run but also takes into consideration what works.  With Paul, we should all be “mindful” of the poor. But, with Aristotle, we should first know and distinguish what does help them and what does not. Otherwise our concern for the poor is as likely to harm as as to help them.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are "The Mind That Is Catholic" and "The Modern Age."

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