The poor will always be with us, but such a sobering reality does not free us from an obligation to work to alleviate the ravages of poverty. On the contrary, Jesus’ statement only serves to remind us that every generation will face the question of how best to fulfill our holy obligations to them.
It is clear that many in the present generation have taken notice of the plight of the poor and are moved by genuine compassion to advocate for the poor, provide for their needs and seek to lessen the suffering caused by their circumstances.
The challenge, however, is to wed this compassion to action that works. The poor don’t need what they often receive from the affluent: secondhand clothes, free Thanksgiving meals and taxpayer-funded government aid. The poor, whether in the developed or developing world, need opportunity. They need the freedom to address their own poverty in their own context.
The poor and rich alike share in the image of God. Each person is created with inherent value because of God’s imprint on them. Being created in the image of the Creator may mean many things, but two things that accompany the unique status of “image bearer” are 1) privilege and 2) responsibility. As a child of God, each person is entitled to enjoy the goodness of the Creator’s world, but is also charged with the responsibility to cultivate it to bring forth God’s good gifts. For many poor people, the good intentions of the affluent have robbed them of the privileges that are their birthright and frustrated their attempts to take responsibility in the Father’s good creation.
Economic freedom is what the poor need. They need the social and economic infrastructure to become creators — creators of culture, business, wealth and jobs. They need societies in which no man, by virtue of birth or power, is above the law. They need private property and the legal infrastructure to protect it. They need access to the currents of global trade. They need these things because only the development of local economics can lift the poor out of poverty. Government-to-government aid can’t do that. A pair of free shoes, a bag of rice or shirts imprinted with the logo of last year’s football champions can’t do that either. In fact, all of these things represent the well-meaning but misguided attempts to ease poverty. In reality, these things simply create dependency.
It is not that material aid is never appropriate. But material aid is the solution to a social problem distinct from poverty. When disease or natural disasters strike and disrupt or even destroy, the impulse to give necessities is appropriate. An influx of water, medicine and food after earthquakes and floods will save lives, but this is a solution to a temporary problem. Too much of our concern for the poor is expressed as if we are responding to an emergency, when in reality this provision of simple necessities, which is often erratic and unpredictable, undermines the type of entrepreneurial creativity required to develop a self-sustaining economy where people can flourish. Even in the developed world, the poor often enter vicious cycles of dependency with no hope of escape unless they can be empowered and freed to work creatively to provide for their own needs.
If you truly desire to help the poor, be a voice for them and demand the economic liberty that is a necessary precondition for them to fulfill their own natural vocation as image bearers who are free to enjoy the fruits of their own labor rather than subsist on the fruits of yours.
• Trey Dimsdale, J.D., is director of program outreach at Acton Institute. He has completed the course work for a Ph.D. in ethics and is actively involved as a board member and adviser for the National Faith & Work Association, the Lausanne Movement’s Workplace Forum and an organizer of a program in the Balkans that seeks to equip unemployed and underemployed young people to launch new businesses.