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The Poor You Will Always Have With You

Let’s pick up a contentious and confusing topic: poverty. Consider this preparation for conversations with friends and family over the holidays. Yes, yes, how thoughtful of me. You can thank me later. In a recent conversation at a coffee shop, friends discussed the question, “What is a proper Christian goal of economics?” (On a side note, I am beginning to wonder if there is a causal relationship between coffee shops and good conversations, but I digress.) It seems to be taken for granted that the answer to the question of Christian economics is “the eradication of poverty.” Progressive Christians and free-market Christians all seem to agree on this point, and most of the debate between the two groups focuses on which mechanisms best alleviate poverty. In the course of this conversation, several questions came to mind. First, while it sounds noble to eradicate poverty, the unresolved prerequisite question is this: How do we define poverty? This question is obvious prima facie. Are we talking American food stamps and “Obama phone” type poverty? Or are we talking about the African orphan whose only birthright is HIV? Second, since people constantly move between economic classes, who do we identify as poor? This economic mobility is part of the power of the free market. Dr. Anne Bradley, vice president of economic initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics published a fascinating study earlier this year titled, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? An Economic and Biblical Explanation.” She discusses this at length:
In a market economy, most people start out at a lower income bracket and move to higher incomes. They enter the labor market with low skills and little experience. As they progress in their work they gain both. As they gain skills, knowledge, experience and awareness of what they are good at, they earn more income over time. All of this is based on people using their gifts and talents to serve others. They are even serving people they don’t know! There is another problem with income inequality data. Solely looking at income inequality levels from one decade to the next does not tell us anything about the actual people inside those income brackets. Those people who are in the lowest quintile in 1990 are probably not in the lowest quintile in 2000 or 2010, because with the passage of time those people who started at the bottom have theoretically gained skills, experiences and knowledge to be better at what they do. Evidence supporting this theory include a 2008 report by the United States Treasury on income mobility which found that between 1996 and 2005 more than half of all US taxpayers moved into a higher income quintile. Roughly half who started in the lowest quintile in 1996 moved into a higher quintile by 2005, in only nine years. For the highest income earners the results were not the same: “Among those with the very highest incomes in 1996—the top 1/100 of 1 percent—only 25 percent remained in this group in 2005. Moreover, the median real income of these taxpayers declined over this period.”
IFWE Chart IFWE Chart 2 (Images from the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics: “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? An Economic and Biblical Explanation“) Third, is poverty is a consequence of sin? Is it an inevitable element of our fallen nature? It would seem to be so when Christ himself says, “the poor you will always have with you.” Let’s look at that statement from Matthew 26:6-13 in context:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Obviously throughout his ministry and teaching, Christ shows great compassion for the poor. So what does it mean that “the poor you will always have with you?” What, then, should be the Christian goal of economics? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll pick up here next week.