Poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It’s not like a tornado or an earthquake.
Poverty is not a necessary state. Nor is it something that falls from the sky.
“In the U.S., grim poverty is a tragedy, that great wealth makes a sin,” William Sloan Coffin once declared. I have often referred to these words of Coffin’s as I think they succinctly tell the truth about poverty.
Poverty is quite simply the result of poor choices.
Often, we like to frame those choices on the backs of the poor: they have made choices to be indolent, to fail at school, to live on the street for fun.
Rarely do we engage the choices we citizens have made that keep the poor in this unnecessary place.
No one can deny that people do make decisions that send them down the economic ladder. I’ve made a few of those myself.
But the choices that keep the majority of people in places of poverty are not individual, they are corporate.
By corporate I mean that we have made political and economic choices that ensure generations of people are locked into cycles of poverty with no viable exit.
By corporate I do not mean to imply that we Americans are not generous with our charitable giving. In fact, we are.
Every church I’ve served has had a charity ministry of some significance: a food pantry, clothing closet and/or emergency aid funds. These “first aid” approaches do stop some bleeding, but they do not heal the body.
Long ago I learned how to do CPR. But if you need heart surgery, you’ll need a whole hospital system, not just two willing hands trained over a few hours.
In this very rich land, we have some very poverty sick people. We need to commit more than a cabinet full of Band-Aids to have a healthy populace.
We’ve spent trillions of dollars on our national security and our space program but relatively few dollars on providing platforms for the poor that will do more than triage.
The minimum wage is one such platform. But the effort to make a livable minimum wage has failed so far.
Relative to inflation, the minimum wage worker has fallen way behind in recent decades – such that even full-time workers making minimum wage are having to shop at food pantries, go to free health clinics (if available), and live in housing that many of us would never consider.
We know that education is another platform. There’s no question that the power of high school and university has profoundly transformed individuals and families. And yet our under-investment in public education has exacerbated poverty – often along racial lines.
We largely fund public education by community property taxes. This has created a zip code apartheid where some schools glean and lack the basic resources.
Our way of funding has, in some cases, created a twofold difference between dollars per student. Connecticut, for instance, spends more than twice as much as Mississippi, which has dramatically more poor students.
The difference in outcomes can’t be traced to funding alone, but there is enough evidence to demonstrate a clear connection. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
Another key platform is access to health care. Everyone needs a doctor regularly and a hospital occasionally.
Our system is designed for those who have employee-based insurance. And yet countless workers do not. It only takes one hospitalization for the uninsured (or under-insured) to rack up an unpayable debt.
I have seen firsthand the difference between a place like New York State that has a healthy investment assisting the Medicaid population and a state like Mississippi that has refused federal money to assist its underserved population.
The differences are stark, and the results are life and death.
Nothing I’ve said so far is all that controversial. Nor is it hard to build a much more substantial case for each “platform” than I have room for here.
However, I also want to mention another potential platform. There is good reason to think UBI, or universal basic income, will be another key piece of alleviating poverty.
UBI ensures that everyone in a country, state or city receives a regular dividend payment. It’s typically small, but sometimes enough to keep people from extreme poverty.
The concern is that such a program would make people dependent, lazy and unwilling to work. This is not born out in the research.
In places like Alaska and in some native American tribes, where oil or casino funds are distributed to citizens on a regular basis, outcomes for productivity, and even birthrates, have been positive.
Currently, there are experiments in UBIs happening around the globe. It seems likely that as our economy becomes more and more automated, we may need to provide this level of support as entry level-jobs become scarce.
Whether or not this is true, it does seem that this approach may be another effective tool in providing a leg up rather than just a hand-out.
The biblical concept of the year of jubilee is much more in line with large, transformative, corporate action than with a bag of groceries.
I have a dear friend who works in the same U.N. advocacy circles as I do. Not very long ago he was able to introduce Barber to a human rights officer at the U.N. in New York City.
The well-meaning officer said that we must do better by the poor, underserved Black children in the world. Barber replied, “No, we must do better by ALL of God’s children.”
Yes, we must.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week highlighting the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The other articles in the series are:
‘Bootstrap Theology’ Offers Flawed Perspective on Poverty | Terrell Carter
Why I Felt Ashamed After Visiting a New Church | Emma Fraley
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.