Economics 101 & Public Square

Justice Conference Attendees Attribute Drop in Global Abject Poverty Rate to Business, Trade, and Markets

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On Thursday morning, I made my way up Pennsylvania Avenue in DC to my neighborhood coffee shop, pulling my suitcase behind me. The coffee shop is always my first stop before a long trip, and in a couple hours, I would be on a plane to Chicago for the Justice Conference.

“Can you help the homeless?” I heard a familiar voice asked.

Looking down to my left, I saw a woman sitting on a stoop outside the coffee shop, grinning up at me. I recognized her from previous encounters on the same block and knew her for always having something kind or funny to say.

Interacting with panhandlers is something I struggle with, but that day, I decided I should know her name.

After introducing herself, she told me about her health problems. She hadn’t eaten in three days. I asked her if she would let me buy her something to eat. She agreed.

Inside the coffee shop, I bought myself a latte and grabbed a sandwich, a power bar, and a cold juice for my new friend. But when I returned to her stoop, she was gone.

This made me a little upset and confused—upset because I felt like my gift was rejected, and confused because I didn’t understand why.

My first instinct was to not want to help her again, but that would have been the wrong takeaway.

Instead, this experience humbled me. It reminded me how difficult it can be to help others, how complex poverty really is, and how little I really understand about the subject despite all my opinions.

It changed my mindset going into the Justice Conference from one of teaching at IFWE’s booth, to one of learning from other attendees.

What Is Wiping Out Poverty Across the Globe?

At the conference, we wrote the question, “What do you think it wiping out poverty across the globe today” on a chalkboard at our booth.

Above the question was a graph based on a World Bank statistic showing that the percentage of the global population living in abject poverty, as defined as living on $1.25 per day or less, has dropped from 52 percent in 1981 to 17 percent in 2011.

We were excited to hear other people share what they think is responsible for this dramatic shift.

The most popular answers were:

  • Awareness
  • Education
  • Empowerment of women
  • Economic factors like micro-finance, job creation, and increased access to global markets through trade
  • Jesus and the gospel

Since the Justice Conference has a reputation for leaning to the left, I was surprised with how many attendees attributed this drop in poverty to business, free trade, and free markets.

Love and Justice

Speakers at the conference focused on specific issues like poverty alleviation, peace, anti-trafficking, race, and what it looks like to engage in effective discussion surrounding these issues.

Bob Goff’s message was love first, justice second. Using a bucket analogy, he said we must fill our buckets full of love in order to get justice. He also suggested we shouldn’t be so opinionated. He said,

We will be known for our opinions but we will be remembered for our love.

Jonathan Merritt spoke on opinions and how to disagree well with one another. He argued that Christians will get along better in the public square by following three cardinal virtues: bravery (to speak up and to sit down), humility, and empathy.

This conversation was a salient one as I saw reflected on the fact that most Christians want justice, we just have different opinions on how to get there.

Humbly engaging in loving discussions and showing empathy towards people with differing opinions from our own will bring the church closer to a place where we can live justice together. Though there were many opinions at the conference, everyone was present for a common goal of the church working together to bring about justice.

The Trading Game

However, opinions were expressed strongly at times during the conference. At the race and reconciliation panel, Reverend Traci Blackmon argued that all privilege is unearned. Discussion centered around the idea that the most privileged people needed to surrender their privilege for justice.

It seems to me that this idea is centered around the notion that economic privilege is a fixed pie: one person’s privilege stops someone else from being privileged. I wished the conversation was more focused on how we can get more privilege for those who don’t have it, rather than how to get less privilege for those who do.

We had the opportunity to play a game at IFWE’s booth with conference attendees demonstrating that economic wealth (or privilege) isn’t a fixed pie. The game is called “the trading game” and it shows how trade increases human flourishing.

In the game, each player receives a bag of items ranging from candy and small toys like bouncy balls, to more valuable items like sunglasses.

At the beginning, each player rates their happiness on a scale from one to ten. After a couple rounds of trading, players are asked to rate their happiness again, which is generally always much higher than before trading takes place.

The lesson here: increased access to trade always increases human well-being, even though resources remain unchanged.  Trade is one of the main reasons why abject poverty has decreased so significantly since the 1980s.

It can be difficult to know how to best help others, and poverty seems more complex day by day. In spite of this, essential truths remain:

  • God created each person with dignity.
  • God created us with unique gifts and talents.
  • God created us to flourish.
  • God created us for justice.
  • God created us to be free.

Circling back to our question: “What do you think is wiping out poverty across the globe today?” I think I liked Wesley Gant’s response the best:

People may point to things like science, medicine, education, economy…but freedom gives life to all of those.

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