I am a relatively lucky man. I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but I do have more than a lot of people. I have more people in my life who I love than I can count on both hands, to borrow a line from Pearl Jam. I’ve even managed to keep a number of those relationships alive for more than two decades. My health isn’t perfect, but my end date is an open question, not something I can see rushing toward me at a defined pace.
Not everyone can say these things, and despite the conventional wisdom that everything is about choices and attitudes, it’s often not their fault. For some people, none of the options available to them are good, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.
We don’t like to think about ‘the poor’ in our society, and when we do, we prefer to assume their fate was a result of their own character flaws or poor choices than the inevitable outcome of our social structures. We like to dismiss the homeless and the poor as lazy and/or stupid, because it absolves us of any responsibility.
This is a strange position to take for a society that likes to think of itself as Christian. When you consider how wealth and poverty are discussed in the Gospels – that the poor get to inherit the earth, that the rich have less chance of entering heaven than a camel does of passing the eye of a needle, and so on – it’s difficult to fathom how we can be so blasé about the misery of others. Of course, someone will point out that ‘the poor shall always be with you,’ but I don’t think that statement was meant to excuse the rest of us from trying to make their lot better.
Now, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a Christian (or an anything, for that matter), and further, I’d prefer our society – or at least our institutions – to be secular. But whatever your religious persuasion (or, if you’re like me, unpersuasion), it seems socially important that we try to do a better job of looking after each other.
Currently, our western societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction. (No eastern societies are doing any better in that regard, as far as I’m aware.) We retreat into looking after ourselves, and maybe the small cluster of people we surround ourselves with. The Ayn Rand Virtue of Selfishness crowd seems to have largely won the day, at least for now.
There are some, of course – of many religious and non-religious stripes – who do try to help those whose boats have been swamped by the ebb and flow of economic tides. They volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. They collect and hand out blankets and socks. They do so much, but it is never enough. Can never be enough.
Poverty is the cancer caused not just by our economic systems, but the way we have structured our societies. It grows and spreads. Charity is like chemotherapy trying to keep some of the tumors at bay, at best, like an opioid to dull the pain at worst. Charity cannot prevent poverty, or make the pain of it slightly less intolerable.
Is there a way to change this? To prevent poverty, rather than ‘treating’ it? I don’t know. I like to think there is, even if I can’t describe it myself. I’m pretty certain, though, that it won’t come from more Randian selfishness, or from any amount of charity. Marx thought he’d found a solution, and I think he was right in assuming it required democratization of economics, but his method – at least as it’s been executed historically – hasn’t worked out any better than Christianity.
If anyone’s got some serious ideas how to go about this, please speak up.