Poverty And The American Mind

After Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium, unfortunately reasonable economic discussions got swamped by talk of Marxism and 'trickle-down theories' and the Pope's blithe retort about Marxists being good people.

I say unfortunate because these issues need genuine discussion to be understood from a Catholic point of view.  In the western world, particularly in America the discussion focused on the Pope's word choices rather than the underlying issues he was trying to address.  There are many reasons for this, the least of which is not the Pope's word choices.  But in part, I think that the underlying point was lost on American minds because we have a unique and somewhat myopic view of poverty.

Some commentators made the point that poverty in other parts of the world is very different than in the western world, particularly America.  This is true, of course, but again it fails to take into account the full picture. 

Some say that Americans fail to understand the nature of genuine poverty because many 'poor people' in the U.S. have cell-phones, $100 Jordans, and flat screen TV's.  Poverty here is not the same.  Yes and no.

Certainly, what people sometimes call 'poverty' in the U.S. is embarrassing in its consumerist sense of entitlement, but there is genuine poverty in the U.S. as well.

I believe that one of the reasons we view poverty differently, and insufficiently, is that a large part of adult poverty in the U.S. is driven by poor decisions and poor values.  Because of this, many people look on most poverty as readily changeable. Change your behavior and your situation will likely improve.

It is not that many Americans don't acknowledge that some people experience genuine poverty due to circumstances beyond their control such as child poverty, unexpected illness, and death of a provider.  We have sympathy for these circumstances and generally agree on safety net provisions for such people.  But for a large part of people considered to be in poverty, we look at their life choices and significant contributing factors to their circumstances.  Again, for such people, many Americans believe that if they changed their behavior, their circumstances would improve.

To some degree, I think that there is some legitimacy to this viewpoint. But, and this is where the myopia comes in, this type of poverty is atypical when you look at genuine poverty across the world.  In many parts of the world, poverty has nothing to do with your behavior, but rather where and to whom you were born and even those with paramount virtue find escape nearly impossible.  In fact, in such places those that show the least virtue are more likely to find respite.

And this poverty is not a consumerist one that laments access to affordable broadband, but a poverty of food, clean water, shelter, basic health services and safety. There is real, horrific, and nearly inescapable poverty in the world.    In such places, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor and the system is set up to keep it that way. But, for the most part, Americans don't see it and don't understand it.

This is why when the Pope issued Evangelii Gaudium we get caught up in side discussions about politics and the efficacy of the free market as a means for the equitable distribution of goods rather than addressing the problems the Pope is trying to address.

I think there is serious discussion to be had regarding the Pope's economic prescriptions and proscriptions, but in America we have yet to have them.  Don't get me wrong, I think that free markets are likely the best means for the equitable distribution of wealth in consideration.  But we must acknowledge that free markets will do nothing in many places with poverty such as described above.  In those places, we would likely be trading freely with those who already have something to trade, the wealthy.

This is where I believe the Catholic part must enter.  It will take those with means entering these areas with the sole intent of benefiting those there even at the expense of profit.  Again, don't get me wrong, profit is a good and necessary thing.  Unprofitable business will not help very many for very long.  But pure profit should not motivate the Catholic to enter these areas.  The motive must be higher; it must be to benefit those who need it.  I think that this is what the Pope is getting at, even if he uses unfortunate terminology to the American ear of 'trickle-down theories' and income inequality.

As Christians our responsibility is not merely charity to temporarily alleviate some of the worst ravages of poverty.  In fact, Americans in particular are very generous in this regard.  But our responsibility goes beyond that.  If we are people of means, we have a responsibility to use those means to spread wealth and opportunity to areas and people who would otherwise be untouched by prosperity.

We shouldn't be debating whether Christians are obligated to do this, we are.  We should be debating the best means of achieving it.  As modern Americans, when we hear such talk of economic equity we rightly get nervous about top-down government enforced economic schemes that benefit government more than people.  But that does not mean we can just tune out the discussion altogether.

As Christians, we have obligations in the economic sphere and we should not tune them out and turn them off because of our American ears.