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On Poverty

Zoriah Miller

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 07/21/14 - updated on 06/08/17

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.

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