Richard John Neuhaus is calling it “one of the most important books on world poverty in a very long time.” It’s Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Neuhaus’s discussion is thorough so I won’t reiterate. Suffice it to say that I’m intrigued by the book’s arguments. I’ve always thought the question of when to intervene militarily—self-evidently one of the key foreign policy questions—is also one of the thorniest moral questions. The way one answers it often has ramifications, for good or for bad, for the world’s most vulnerable people. It seems obvious that a strictly libertarian approach (“never intervene”) is callous, not to mention geopolitically foolish, while a vigorously interventionist policy is dangerous in many ways as well as unsustainable in the longterm. In between the two, how does one formulate consistent criteria of intervention, rather than make decisions in an ad hoc fashion, a method too easily affected by the passions of the time, special interests, and so on? I’ve yet to see a satisfying answer.
PowerBlog has in the past endorsed the concept of micro-loans as a market-friendly and thereby effective way of aiding the poor, especially in developing countries.
Now Arneel Karnani has attacked microfinance in a prestigious publication, largely on the basis of macroeconomic data.
Over at Business as Mission Network, microfinancier Peter Greer supplies a thorough and fascinating response to the charges.
Certainly any movement needs it critics and Karnani scores some genuine points, but it seems to me that Greer’s rebuttals are on the whole convincing. Micro-loans won’t eliminate poverty, but they play an important role in its alleviation—and in the rehabilitation of the dignity of the individuals who are able to take responsibility for their economic welfare.
- This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and a new centenary edition has been released this month by HarperSanFrancisco and includes responses to each chapter from figures such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.
- R’s introduction to the American situation: “We have now arrived, and all the characteristic conditions of American life will henceforth combine to make the social struggle here more intense than anywhere else. The vastness and the free sweep of our concentrated wealth on the one side, the independence, intelligence, moral vigor, and political power of the common people on the other side, promise a long-drawn grapple of contesting forces which may well make the heart of every American patriot sink within him” (xi-xii).
- Religion, specifically Christianity, is a vital force in the coming social conflict between rich and poor: “It follows that the relation between Christianity and the social crisis is one of the most pressing questions for all intelligent men who realize the power of religion, and most of all for the religious leaders of the people who give direction to the forces of religion” (xii).
- The writings of the prophets are the foundational biblical precedent for R’s program: “However our views of the Bible may change, every religious man will continue to recognize that to the elect minds of the Jewish people God gave so vivid a consciousness of the divine will that, in its main tendencies at least, their life and thought carry a permanent authority for all who wish to know the higher right of God. Their writings are like channel buoys anchored by God, and we shall do well to heed them now that the roar of an angry surf is in our ears” (2-3).
- Juxtaposing ceremony and morality, R emphasizes that the prophets focused solely on moral conduct, not on external matters of divine appeasement: “The prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation. This they preached, and they backed their preaching by active participation in public action and discussion” (11).
- A summary of the significance of the prophets: “If anyone holds that religion is essentially ritual and sacramental; or that it is purely personal; or that God is on the side of the rich; or that social interest is likely to lead preachers astray; he must prove his case with his eye on the Hebrew prophets, and the burden of proof is with him” (43).
- R calls for a transformative ethic: “Ascetic Christianity called the world evil and left it. Humanity is waiting for a revolutionary Christianity which will call the world evil and change it…. Jesus was not a mere social reformer. Religion was the heart of his life, and all that he said on social relations was said from the religious point of view. He has been called the first socialist. He was more; he was the first real man, the inaugurator of a new humanity. But as such he bore within him the germs of a new social and political order. He was too great to be the Saviour of a fractional part of human life. His redemption extends to all human needs and powers and relations” (91).
- Anticipating the basis for the ecumenical movement: “Common work for social welfare is the best common ground for the various religious bodies and the best training school for practical Christian unity” (340).
- The prophetic role of the pastor: “The ministry, in particular, must apply the teaching functions of the pulpit to the pressing questions of public morality. It must collectively learn not to speak without adequate information; not to charge individuals with guilt in which all society shares; not to be partial, and yet to be on the side of the lost; not to yield to particular partisanship, but to deal with moral questions before they become political issues and with those questions of public welfare which never do become political issues” (412).
- An indictment of industrial society: “The force of the religious spirit should be bent toward asserting the supremacy of life over property. Property exists to maintain and develop life. It is unchristian to regard human life as a mere instrument for the production of wealth” (413).
- An attack on property rights, broadly defined: “The most fundamental evils in past history and present conditions were due to converting stewardship into ownership. The keener moral insight created by Christianity should lend its help in scrutinizing all claims to property and power in order to detect latent public rights and to recall the recreant stewards to their duty” (413). Presumably stewardship practically requires some sort of property rights, however.
- This would be news to missionaries around the world today: “The championship of social justice is almost the only way left open to a Christian nowadays to gain the crown of martyrdom. Theological heretics are rarely persecuted now. The only rival of God is Mammon, and it is only when his sacred name is blasphemed that men throw the Christians to the lions” (418).
- It must be noted that R was writing before WWI and WII: “Humanity is gaining in elasticity and capacity for change, and every gain in general intelligence, in organizing capacity, in physical and moral soundness, and especially in responsiveness to ideal motives, again increases the ability to advance without disastrous reactions. The swiftness of evolution in our own country proves the immense latent perfectibility in human nature” (422).
Fox News reports:
The nation’s poverty rate dropped last year, the first significant decline since President Bush took office. The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that 36.5 million Americans, or 12.3 percent — were living in poverty last year. That’s down from 12.6 percent in 2005. The median household income was $48,200, a slight increase from the previous year. But the number of people without health insurance also increased, to 47 million.
The last significant decline in the poverty rate came in 2000, during the Clinton administration. In 2005, the poverty rate dipped from 12.7 percent to 12.6 percent, but Census officials said that change was statistically insignificant.
The poverty numbers are good economic news at a time when financial markets have been rattled by a slumping housing market. However, the numbers released Tuesday represent economic conditions from a year ago.
The poverty level is the official measure used to decide eligibility for federal health, housing, nutrition and child care benefits. It differs by family size and makeup. For a family of four with two children, for example, the poverty level is $20,444. The poverty rate — the percentage of people living below poverty — helps shape the debate on the health of the nation’s economy.
Robert Rector, of the Heritage Foundation, reminds us of what it means to live as “the poor” in America:
The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
* Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
* Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
* Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
* The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
* Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.
* Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
* Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
* Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.
Important items to remember:
(1) Those living “in poverty” is never a static population. People cycle in and out of poverty over time.
(2) Unemployment numbers remain steady. Both the number of unemployed persons (7.1 million) and the unemployment rate (4.6 percent) were about unchanged in July. The jobless rate has ranged
from 4.4 to 4.6 percent since September 2006. (Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
(3) Raising the minimum wage will not reduce the poverty rate but increasing the number of jobs will in the short-term.
(4) The low-skilled labor market continues to experience job loss due to advances in technology (robots, “self-check out” lanes, etc.)
(5) There has been considerable job growth since 2003. On August 3, The Bureau Of Labor Statistics released new jobs figures. Since August 2003, more than 8.3 million jobs have been created, with more than 1.8 million jobs created over the twelve months ending in July. Our economy has now added jobs for 47 straight months.
(6) According to White House data:
(a) Real GDP Grew At A Strong 3.4 Percent In The Second Quarter Of 2007. The economy has now experienced nearly six years of uninterrupted growth, averaging 2.7 percent a year since 2001.
(b) Real After-Tax Per Capita Personal Income Has Risen By 11.4 Percent
(c) Real Wages Rose 1.3 Percent Over The 12 Months Ending In June. This is faster than the average rate during the 1990s, and it means an extra $782 in the past year for a family with two average wage earners.
(d) Since The First Quarter Of 2001, Productivity Growth Has Averaged 2.8 Percent Per Year. This is well above the average productivity growth in the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s.
In the end, the current poverty rate reduction is simply a result of a combination of the factors listed above. In order to continue reductions in poverty the business sector needs more freedom to create jobs to meet the needs of our changing communities. Tax burdens and frivolous government regulation continue to stifle entrepreneurial creativity and innovation. Additionally, the moral dimensions of poverty need continued attention by the various mediating institutions like the church and other non-profits. Poverty is multi-layered and material solutions alone will not bring about long-term reductions.
When the sign for one of those payday lending stores went up on the corner a block away from my house, I have to say I was less than enthusiastic.
The standard response in a market economy to “market failure” is for a nonprofit to fill the gap in services or meet the need. Today’s NYT reports on efforts in the short-term loan industry to meet that need. As it stands in the market system, “Payday loan stores, which barely existed 15 years ago, now outnumber most fast-food franchises. Typically a customer borrows a few hundred dollars in exchange for a check, postdated to the next payday, made out in the amount of the principal plus a fee of $15 to $22 per $100 borrowed.” 22 dollars every two weeks works out to about 572 percent annual interest.
The troubling part of this is that those who are most likely to need these kinds of loans are the poor, people who are hit the hardest by higher rates of interest. It’s also clear that they are making some very poor fiscal decisions.
Nonprofit groups are in the early stages of setting up programs to help ameliorate the situation. GoodMoney, a joint venture of Goodwill Industries and Prospera Credit Union, charges about half of what for profit lenders charge. That still works out to over 200 percent interest annually, but “Of the $9.90 that GoodMoney charges per $100 borrowed, nearly half goes to writing off bad loans, Mr. Eiden said, and the rest to database service and administrative costs.” In the case of Ms. Truckey, profiled in the NYT piece, because of GoodMoney, “A few dollars from each payment go into a savings account, the first she has had in years.”
Programs like GoodMoney are still in their infancy and it’s clear that charging some level of interest might be a necessary part of encouraging responsibility and promoting independence on the part of the borrower. And market levels of interest approaching 600 percent per annum seem a bit like throwing someone in debtors prison if they can’t pay back a loan: there’s simply no way out of the mounting debt.
Now whether or not the amount that GoodMoney is charging isn’t precisely clear (there are no entries for GoodMoney at either GuideStar or Charity Navigator, and GoodMoney’s website doesn’t seem to disclose a breakdown of the programs expenses), but the enterprise itself is an interesting exercise in meeting the needs coming out of a pretty clear instance of market failure.
This summer I’m working on developing the syllabus for a class that I’ll be helping to lead in the Fall. The course will focus on readings in social ethics, with a general theme on church and culture, and a particular theme on church and poverty.
I’ll be reading through the selections on this particular theme over the next few weeks. I’d like to post the readings for the week that I’ll be going through, so that you can read along if you like. I’ll post my responses, observations, and questions as separate posts throughout the week, as starters for discussions that we can pursue in the comment threads if you so desire.
I’ll do my best to summarize works that may not be available or for those who aren’t able for whatever reason to engage the primary sources directly. Where available online, I’ll include links to the primary sources. Otherwise, the sources can only be found in print (this information is available upon request…some of them may be hard to find, and I’ll note those in the relevant post).
The readings will progress in roughly historical order. For this first week of readings, let’s look at:
- Cyprian of Carthage, On Works and Alms
- Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?
- Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor
- Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor
- Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19.
- Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59; Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15.
- Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis.
To conclude this survey of a series of texts on the church and poverty, we’ll be looking at this piece from Rauschenbusch. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and a new centenary edition has been released this month by HarperSanFrancisco and includes responses to each chapter from figures such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.
- With next week’s reading of Rauschenbusch in view, here’s how Kuyper evaluates Christian socialists: “Socialists constantly invoke Christ in support of their utopias, and continually hold before us important texts from the Holy Word. Indeed, socialists have so strongly felt the bond between social distress and the Christian religion that they have not hesitated to present Christ himself as the great prophet of socialism” (27).
- Here’s what Jesus’ social message really consists in: “If you ask what Jesus did to bring deliverance from the social needs of his time, here is the answer. He knew that such desperate needs grow from the malignant roots of error and sin, so he placed the truth over against error and broke the power of sin by shedding his blood and pouring out his Holy Spirit on his own. Since rich and poor had become divided because they had lost their point of union in God, he called both together back to their Father who is in heaven. He saw how the idolizing of money had killed nobility in the human heart, so he held up the “service of Mammon” before his followers as an object for their deep contempt. Since he understood the curse that lies in capital, especially for the man of great wealth, he adjured him to cease his accumulation of capital and to gather not treasure on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal (Matt. 6:19). He rejected the rich young man because he could not decide to sell all his goods and give to the poor. In his heart Jesus harbored no hatred for the rich, but rather a deep compassion for their pitiable condition. The service of Mammon is exceedingly difficult. Sooner would a camel go through the eye of a needle than would a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 9:16-24). Only when the possession of money leads to usury and harshness does Jesus become angry, and in a moving parable he tells how the man who would not release his debtor is handed over to torturers and branded as a wicked servant who knows no pity (Matt. 18:23-35)” (37-38).
- Likewise Kuyper says: “The socialists so flatly reverse [this] when they preach it: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). For both rich and poor, Jesus’ teaching simultaneously cuts to the root of sin in our human heart” (39-40).
- The deep interconnections between material want and spiritual need: “A charity which knows only how to give money, is not yet Christian love. You will be free of guilt only when you also give your time, your energy, and your resourcefulness to help end such abuses for good, and when you allow nothing that lies hidden in the storehouse of your Christian religion to remain unused against the cancer that is destroying the vitality of our society in such alarming ways…You do not honor God’s Word if, in these circumstances, you ever forget how the Christ, (just as his prophets before him and his apostles after him) invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed. Even more appalling is the spiritual need of our generation. When, in the midst of our social misery, I observe the demoralization that follows on the heels of material need, and hear a raucous voice which, instead of calling on the Father in heaven for salvation, curses God, mocks his Word, insults the cross of Golgotha, and tramples on whatever witness was still in the conscience–all in order to inflame everything wild and brutish in the human heart–then I stand before an abyss of spiritual misery that arouses my human compassion almost more than does the most biting poverty” (62-63).
- Solidarity as expressed ultimately in the sacrament of communion: “The tremendous love springing up from God within you displays its radiance not in the fact that you allow poor Lazarus to quiet his hunger with the crumbs that fall from your overburdened table. All such charity is more like an insult to the manly heart that beats in the bosom of the poor man. Rather, the love within you displays its radiance in this: Just as rich and poor sit down with each other at the communion table, so also you feel for the poor man as for a member of the body, which is all that you are as well. To the poor man, a loyal handshake is often sweeter than a bountiful largess. A friendly word, not spoken haughtily, is the gentlest balm for one who weeps over his wounds. Divine compassion, sympathy, and suffering with us and for us–that was the mystery of Golgotha. You, too, must suffer with your suffering brothers. Only then will the holy music of consolation vibrate in your speech. Then, driven by this sympathy of compassion, you will naturally conform your action to your speech. For deeds of love are indispensable” (77). See also 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
- Is state welfare an adequate substitute for Christian charity? Never: “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” (78).
Next week: Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis.