The Other I

October 4, 2012

Blessed are the poor?

I think sometimes that modern Christianity has a slightly schizophrenic attitude toward the poor.

On the one hand, religious men and women often take vows of poverty, and even though this rarely entails real deep poverty, it is a statement that poverty is a desirable condition that aids in achieving sanctity.

And we often castigate the rich for the very fact that they are rich.  After all, as Jesus said, it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter heaven.

So Christians often feel a duty to try to help the poor and to reduce poverty.  They rail at inequality and the injustice they think this reflects.  They set up charities, send food and clothes, run schools and hospitals, and will even dedicate their entire lives to reduce poverty.

Poverty, though, is also offered as the explanation for levels of crime in poor areas that occur with less frequency in more affluent areas.  So although maybe it’s not all their fault, poor people should not be judged in the same way for their offenses as those who aren’t poor.  Apparently poverty might corrupt, but the poor aren’t as guilty as those who do the same thing when they aren’t poor.

I think the assumption that poor people commit more crimes than people who aren’t poor is not substantiated by the facts, and in any case is an insult to the poor.  But many people think they are being charitable by saying that it is poverty makes us more likely to steal, to commit violent crimes, etc.

I’m certainly in favor of eliminating destitute poverty and starvation in the world.  In fact, I wish many religious leaders were a little less concerned with short-term charity and more informed about economics and with building systems in which people have gainful and meaningful work throughout their lives.  Being unable to find work when one can work impresses me as terrible as grave illness.  Getting short-term help in an emergency is tremendously valuable.  But it’s not a long-term solution.

I think that it is better not to turn poverty into a virtue or lack of it into selfishness.

This post also offer a little admiration for economists.  They are not all out there to make millions of dollars for themselves in short-term bonuses.  Many economists really are struggling with understanding how to provide food and clothing, education, and opportunity for everyone.

I think Bill Clinton was right.  “It’s the economy, stupid.”


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