The Poverty Monster

One thing that’s missed in this year’s political talk: Poverty does more to hinder the actual, day-to-day exercise of human rights than any other factor.

For example: He may have to choose between getting transport to a voting booth and paying for a meal. The college has opened its admission policy to her ethnic group, but she can’t afford to take the courses. They’re now allowed to live in that stable neighborhood, but they can’t afford even the rent for an accessory apartment in it, much less to buy an actual house.  She can now apply for that job, and might even have qualifications, but has no good clothes for the interview and thus doesn’t get the job.

On matter after matter, the rights and benefits that have been won by hard fights within a society or culture can’t be accessed by billions of people because they’re poor and don’t have the money to use those rights and benefits.  Sometimes, it means they can’t even begin to use them. More often, it stymies the follow-through.

Of course, there’s much talk about the causes of poverty.  “Oh, it’s greed!”, which is the main truth of the current crisis, but the talk is as if suddenly by magic everyone would have wealth if the few weren’t so greedy. (With all that ‘paper wealth’ spread around, man, would *you* ever be disappointed…) “Oh, it’s Western colonialism!”, as if the world’s economic systems weren’t already failing because they couldn’t handle burgeoning populations before Western colonialists took over.  “Oh, it’s lack of economic opportunity!”, when the main limiter of opportunity is the fact that so many are right now in poverty.  “Oh, it’s Big Government!”, even though the periods when the most headway was made against poverty were when government was getting bigger. “Oh, it’s consumerism!”, as if somehow without consumers we’d have anywhere near enough ways for people to earn a living. “Oh, it’s our personal behavior!”, as if his philandering, thieving, or laziness was why he got fired along with 1/3 of the company’s work force in a cost-cutting move (no doubt shifting his work to some thieving, lazy, philandering shmo in Asia – they have ’em, too).

Fact: seriously, all of these are real factors.

Fact: there are countless other factors. And they all interact in countless ways.

Fact: there are far too many factors to make it possible for political leaders to keep promises about the economy, even if they really meant it. (Fact: despite appearances, some do.)

Thus, it makes no sense to pay attention to promises. What matters is that we all work to chip away at whatever factors we can. There are many who are loudly proclaiming that we can end poverty in our lifetimes.  That’s been proclaimed before.  Trouble is, many will still be proclaiming it a generation from now.  I hope they’re right.  I’m working to that purpose, as are many others.  As a Christian, I believe God is working with us to that purpose.  But behind too much of the proclaiming is a naïvetè about the monumental complexity of the monster Poverty that has repeatedly, throughout human history, crushed the hearts of those who proclaim its coming end.

Poverty, it turns out, has as many causes as there are people.


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