At Work & Public Square

How Students are Wrestling with Questions of Poverty and Inequality

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On Monday, Dr. Anne Bradley, IFWE’s vice president of economic initiatives, and Elise Amyx, IFWE’s academic outreach manager, went to the Cato Institute to speak to some Christian college students about individual calling and how that applies to important policy issues such as income inequality.

At the end, the students asked some great questions, a few of which we’d like to address in more depth.

How can you jump from a conversation about income inequality to income mobility when people are so wary of free markets?

That’s a tough question, and there are two things to keep in mind when trying to answer it.

1. What you make is not what you are worth.

The fact that we are in different professions and are receiving different incomes has no reflection on our value as individuals nor the importance of our work.

God created us in his image and that gives us each intrinsic worth. We are all equal in that sense.

But that does not make us the same. God made us all unique, with different strengths, interests, and ambitions. This individuality is important because it means that we can draw on each other’s strengths to bring about flourishing and improvement in the world.

Our incomes reflect the market worth of what we do, which is based on how much value customers put on different resources. It’s important to remember that incomes are just one way of measuring the value of what we do. As Anne Bradley says,

We are created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others. Income is not the only earthly reward either. It’s just the only reward bestowed by the market. Scripture is clear that some will earn more earthly rewards for efficient stewardship over the resources with which we are endowed.

You might not be earning a high income, but perhaps you are in a position where you have a lot of influence, are able to do what you love, or are able to travel. These are all important factors to keep in mind.

2. Income inequality is not the same as poverty.

If we want to increase flourishing and fight injustice in our world, it would be helpful to focus less on income inequality in order to spend more time on this question: Are the poor getting richer?

Anne Bradley notes,

All levels of income, particularly those of the poor, are constantly increasing in a prosperous society, a phenomenon known as income mobility. This means that if you are born poor, you are not necessarily destined to stay poor.

How are the poor faring in today’s society? Do they have opportunities to improve their situations? When we shift the conversation from income inequality to income mobility, we focus less on comparing ourselves to others. Instead, we begin to ask important questions about how to empower more people to achieve flourishing for themselves.

How can you apply the concept of fulfilling work to poverty reduction?

Poverty is more than just a lack of material goods. It is the inability for someone to reach his or her full potential.

That means that while it might be necessary to help people by providing them with food, shelter, and clothing, we ultimately want to empower them to become independent and realize their full potential through work.

As Peter Greer says,

There is a new movement rising…A movement that sees the immediate need, but works to empower long-term change. A movement that recognizes that a job is superior to a handout. A movement that sees that although [a person] is financially poor, she still has hidden talent and dreams waiting to be uncovered. A movement that seeks to empower and unleash by giving [people] the dignity of meaningful work.

Even the most impoverished people have something unique to contribute to the world. We want to help them find opportunities that allow them to share their gifts with the world through meaningful work.

Sometimes that involves more than simply providing them with a handout.

How do you help those who can’t work?

Some people cannot support themselves through work due to disability or age. These people are no less the image-bearers of God; they are just facing circumstances that keep them from earning a sufficient income through their work.

In this case, it is perfectly appropriate for institutions and individuals to provide perpetual support if necessary.

For example, 1 Timothy describes how the church cared for widows who had no family and were unable to remarry. Glenn Sunshine says,

Christians did not only take care of their own poor. They ministered to the sick and dying, purchased slaves to set them free, clothed the naked, and fed the hungry whether they were Christians or not. This was recognized by Julian the Apostate, the Roman Emperor who attempted to re-paganize Rome after Christianity was legalized. Julian complained, “These impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] feed not only their own poor, but ours as well.”

As we celebrate our uniqueness and think through these questions, we will realize there is no one solution to poverty. How we help depends on the needs, situations, and cultures of the individuals and communities we are trying to minister to.

It’s an approach that requires us to acknowledge that we don’t know what’s best for everyone, and it requires the humility to listen to and learn from those we are trying to help.

What could an individualized approach to poverty look like in your community? Leave your comments here.

Photos courtesy of Brendan O’Hara of the Cato Institute.

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  • Jim Price

    While I read the blogs with keen interest, I get the sense that the scripture is being “unduly pressed” for meaning as Dr. Frank Stagg once put it and by the same token is being forced toward a conclusion that favors capitalism. Of course no such system existed in biblical days. As a student of both economics and the bible I cannot find all the connections that IFWE makes between the two.
    For instance when Peter Greer said that when we give to the poor we often make a mess and even leave a mess; yet Jesus said that to give a drink of water would not go unnoticed by Him. Certainly to give only a few gifts of food and water and necessities will not solve any long term problems. Humans have a 365 days a year need and I commend your institute for trying to find long term and permanent solutions.

    • For a Biblical basis of capitalism see the writings of the scholars of Salamanca. The Wikipedia article is a good place to start. Also see the books on the rise of the West by Rodney Stark.

      While no one invented capitalism, the system came into being in the Dutch Republic of the 16th century as Godly leaders tried to create a nation based on Biblical principles. In economics, they paid attention to the sanctity of property in the Bible, honest courts, and freedom.

      After all, the only government God ever created was the Israeli government in the Torah. It had no president, king, dictator, caesar, kaiser or any other head of state, and no congress, parliament or other law making group. It had no standing military or police force. The only state it had consisted of courts to settle disputes. The judges were like the supreme court.

      Markets were totally free except for prohibitions of theft, fraud and coercion.

      Socialism, on the other hand, was totally and completely fabricated by anti-Christian atheists and deists.

      Capitalism lifted the West out of starvation poverty to wealth unheard of by the nobility 300 years ago. Recently, freer markets have lifted over 500 million from starvation in India and China. Capitalism has done far more for the poor than all the charity combined.

      That doesn’t make charity useless. But if people care about the poor, they will champion freer markets, or capitalism.

  • I take a different approach to the issue of inequality. I agree that inequality is an important issue and am concerned that it has been increasing over the past generation. But instead of leaping to socialist solutions we need to examine why inequality is growing and distinguish between good and bad inequality. Inequality is good if it is based on differing accomplishments because it inspires others to work hard and attempt something similar. But if inequality comes from an unfair use of power then we should stop it.

    Unfair inequality happens when the Fed increases the money supply to cause price inflation which hurts the poor and benefits the wealthy who can invest in assets that rise in value with inflation. Then it hurts the poor again because the artificial boom turns to a bust and causes unemployment among the working poor. Another unfair advantage comes from large corporations getting special treatment and government business as a result of campaign contribution. Most regulations favor large corporations and reduce competition, which drives up prices.

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