by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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.