Poverty is a signal of the failure to acquire suitable resources for the achievement of one’s ends. Since life in this world is always marked by the limitation of resources relative to the ends we desire to achieve, poverty is relative. The poor person is simply unable to sustain his or her own life. There are many reasons for this failure, and each individual case of poverty must be dealt with according to that reason.
If we wish to help the poor, what should be our ultimate goal? Is it merely to provide the needed resources so that the impoverished person can achieve his or her personal ends? I do not think so.
Human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect. When we think about what this ought to entail we can begin to answer these questions. As individual people who have individual value and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, what result would best promote human dignity?
The obvious answer is that if we recognize the inherent value of the individual we would aim to restore that person to a condition of personal freedom and independence. Our goal would be to raise the poor to a place where they are personally responsible for their own lives. Who among us wishes to live out his or her life as a perpetual child who is told by some authority what he may and may not have and what he may or may not do? Such a condition is simply not fitting for a human being.
Despite this goal, there is evidence that rather than promoting independence of the poor, much of our effort promotes dependency. Indeed, there may be a strong tendency in us to prefer participating in supposed acts of kindness that create this sort of dependency. This tendency is not hard to understand. Most of us have experienced the joy of helping someone else out of a difficult situation.
To be sure, our ability to empathize with others gives us ample incentive to engage in acts of charity. However, if we are not careful about keeping the ultimate goal in mind, we can easily fall into the trap of trying to enslave others to our supposed charity in order to make us feel good about ourselves. In our pride we can even suppose ourselves to be somehow better people than those we seek to help. But this turns charity on its head, and it becomes one hundred and eighty degrees opposite of what it should be.
One of the saddest things that may result from such dependency is when the recipients of such welfare acquiesce to it and accept it as their perpetual condition in life. Such acceptance is degrading of human nature and leads inevitably to moral reprobation. Moreover, those maintaining the poor in that condition are likewise degrading themselves, for they are most likely to imagine themselves as saviors of the world, never realizing that poverty can easily befall any of us. As a result of such pride they are likely to become conceited, arrogant, and condescending. Society cannot flourish when this happens.