Conversations about poverty and the alleviation of poverty tend to focus on providing material resources to meet the needs of the poor. There is certainly a need for material relief in assisting the poor. However, particularly in the United States, the most difficult aspect of poverty to remedy tends to be a lack of social capital rather than material assets.
Meeting Material Needs
There is no question that Christians fall short of the ethical demands of scripture if they fail to meet the basic material needs of the poor around them.
James 2:15-17 reminds us of the importance of good works in the Christian life and uses material support of the poor as the primary example:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
When there are legitimate material needs in the communities around us, we have a gospel obligation to meet them. However, true poverty extends well beyond having unmet material needs.
Seeking Justice for the Poor
One of the ways the materially poor can be marginalized in society is in not getting just treatment. Political and judicial leaders can be influenced to favor those with sufficient material wealth.
For example, lawyers at private firms tend to earn more than public lawyers. As a result, only the most talented lawyers will be able to compete for jobs at private firms. This can lead to situations where materially poor individuals are being represented by perhaps less-skilled and often overworked litigators. The end result is a tendency toward plea bargains to quickly settle cases. Poor clients have to settle for inadequate defense and a less just outcome of their cases.
Since material poverty can lead to injustice, scripture calls us to seek justice for the poor and oppressed (Isa. 1:17; Zech. 7:9-10; Jer. 22:3; Ps. 82:3). Different circumstances will require different solutions, but examples may include pro bono work for lawyers, political action to seek more just laws locally or nationally, or helping to fund someone’s legal defense.
To wisely provide this aid and know which laws have disparate negative impacts, people with social capital need to know the poor.
Knowing the Poor
A significant barrier to providing assistance to the poor and oppressed is the stratification of society. Sociologist Charles Murray developed a quiz that helps illustrate how thick the various “bubbles” of society can be. The results indicate many people who are more well-off never come in contact with marginalized sub-groups of society.
In a recent post at AEI, Arthur Brooks and John Powell argue that Americans’ failure to help the poor is actually related to a dislike, or perhaps even a hatred, of the poor. This is a result of segregation of the economic and social strata in our communities. They write,
Well-to-do Americans have almost no meaningful cultural contact with anyone from economically marginalized communities—from struggling inner cities to decaying suburbs to depressed rural communities.
They go on to argue that it is this separation that leads to antipathy toward the poor rather than the other way around.
Poverty of Social Capital
The separation of people in different economic brackets may also keep poorer people from establishing the relationships they need to get jobs that will break cycles of poverty—some of which have existed for generations.
In his much-discussed book, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance notes that one significant disadvantage of his poor, rural upbringing was that he did not understand the social expectations that were necessary to get him to Yale Law School and later to a high-paying law firm. Vance was able to break the cycle largely because of his experience in the Marine Corps and helpful professors that took him under their wing. In other words, he happened to gain the social capital needed to see a positive impact. Unfortunately, those opportunities are not readily available to everyone in similar situations.
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, provides many other examples of material poverty being nearly inescapable because of a lack of social connections. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider relate data that help show how social capital makes material poverty bearable in some robustly interconnected communities and how a lack of it can be detrimental to the isolated poor.
If the material poor have strong social networks within their family, church, and community, they have a much greater likelihood of escaping poverty or better enduring some of the natural effects of poverty.
Loving Our Neighbors
As IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, argues, Christians have an obligation to seek the flourishing of the poor because the poor, too, are made in the image of God. In Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Kathryn Feliciano also emphasizes the importance of relationship in shaping our approach to helping the poor:
What might be a bump in the road to someone with a support structure could be a mountain that derails a poor person. We are made to enjoy, rely on, and reflect God’s glory through relationships. Seeing that poverty is more than just a lack of material resources changes the way we work for people’s flourishing.
It is never enough to simply create a government program that provides a monthly check to keep the poor alive and away from the nice neighborhood. In order to break cycles of poverty, Christians need to learn to love the poor, meet them, build societies that include them, and help them obtain justice in a world that increasingly depends on a commodity that is harder to come by than money and food: social capital.
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