Articles About The Poor Should Define Their Terms

I don’t have a particular article in mind here, I’m talking about many articles I’ve seen over the years, but there’s almost a genre of article using the poor as a club with which to beat Christians. This originates from the fact that Christians have a very important and undeniable duty to the poor. Christ himself said, in a parable, “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”. There’s a lot to say about about the poor, but it seems to me that much of it is never said.

The most obvious thing to say about the poor being, who is the poor. There are lots of definitions which are used in practice, but at the same time the sort of article I’m thinking of almost goes to trouble to avoid defining the poor. The most popular definition implicitly used seems to be “people whose annual income is below 20% of the GDP”. Of course, the moment an author admitted that he was using this definition he’d have very little to say. For several reasons, not the least of which is that someone earning 19% of the GDP and someone earning 1%  of the GDP have very different incomes. In writing the sort of article I’m thinking of, the author always treats everyone in the group as if they’re in the 1% group. But almost worse than this is that what really matters to quality of life (except as modified by envy) is not relative income, but buying power. If it is reasonably possible to feed yourself, clothe yourself, keep your thirst slaked, etc. on 5% of GDP, then this is not the poor Jesus was talking about when he said “I was naked and you clothed me”. There are legitimate things to say about the poor when defined this way, but they’re not the same things one can say about a naked, hungry man who hasn’t had a drink of clean water in a day and a half.

Then there are the attempts to define poverty in terms of access to almost infinitely expensive things like unlimited medical care or financial security. Under those definitions, probably 99% of the population is the poor, so this sort of thing borders on silly. Not silly, but still problematic, is the attempt to define poverty in terms of things like “access to basic medical care”. And indeed one’s heart does go out to people who can’t afford even inexpensive medicines. But here are two big problems with this. The first and most obvious is that no one in Jesus’ day had access to what we now consider basic medical care, and it’s likely that no one alive today has access to what will be considered basic medical care in 200 years. And it would make many things Jesus said absurd if everyone he was talking to was poor because they didn’t have access to penicillin or hydrocodone. The other problem is that much of what we consider basic medical care is worthless or actively harmful. Using antibiotics for a viral infection, for example, leaves you worse off. Powerful opioids which leave you addicted were harmful. Gastric bypass surgery is most likely a terrible idea. And so forth. It doesn’t make sense to be the poor because you can’t harm yourself in the way rich people often do. This is not in any sense to say that it is not a tragedy when people suffer or die from diseases which are easily preventable with a few dollars’ worth of medicine, or that we as Christians shouldn’t endeavor to get those people that medicine. But that also doesn’t mean that people aren’t often glib about what “life saving medicine” actually is or how much it costs.

Then of course there are also simply outlandish things said about the poor. I’ve come across statements like “our entire economic system is built around exploiting the poor”. This is obvious balderdash under any reasonable interpretation. The poor—if you’re not defining them as anyone below the upper middle class—have fairly low economic output. This is not, of course, to blame them, but it remains that the poor don’t manufacture goods, or drive trucks, or provide professional services, etc. Poor people—in the sense of people who, say, can’t afford to eat every day—might possibly wait tables at cheaper restaurants, but this is  not a significant part of the modern economy. It’s a minor luxury which places from McDonalds to Panera show most people are quite willing to do without. The homeless man begging by the subway station obviously has no economic output at all. It’s quite defensible that Christians should be doing more for these people, but it’s utterly untenable that these people are the basis of the modern economy.

(I should note that it’s possible that people are referring to Chinese and other foreigner workers in countries with lower wages than that of the US when they say this sort of thing. If so, there are several problems here which are being ignored. First, that these people are working class, not poor, in their own lands. Perhaps they would be poor if they lived in America, but they’d also be rich if they lived in some parts of Africa. But they live in neither, they live in their own land. Second, this ignores all the goods which are actually made in America, which is—despite propaganda—actually quite large. American manufacturing is far more mechanized than it was 100 years ago or is today in many other countries, so it may be harder to notice this, but the US economy is not based on China. I looked up recent numbers and US imports from China were less than $500 Billion in a year, while the US economy was around $20 Trillion. That is, trade with China made up one fortieth of the US economy. Are there lots of things with “Made In China” on them? Yes. Would our economy crumble if we had to make 100% of our own stuff? Hardly. Even worse for the case at hand, this trade imbalance is a strategic decision on the part of China’s government which has worked to subsidize the export of goods in order to jump-start their manufacturing economy. This means that some of the costs that make Chinese labor cheap are born by the government as a form of investment. N.B. none of this is commentary on working conditions in China, which as I understand are improving but also related to Chinese cultural norms as Chinese factories are largely run by Chinese people. Working conditions should improve in China, but are not related to the present discussion except in the fantasies of people who have no idea how factories are run who imagine that safety standards are extremely expensive when in fact mostly they just require discipline, training, and awareness of how to manufacture goods safely. But—as should be a shock to no one—heat-stroked, exhausted workers aren’t very productive. About the only thing which does cost money is reducing environmental pollution, but pollution affects rich Chinese as well as poor Chinese, since everyone breathes the same air. Again, though, since all of Chinese trade is a small fraction of the US economy, a small increase in cost to goods through the Chinese improving their environmental regulations would have a very negligible impact on the US economy.)

And then there’s the problem with considering the rich in America because we have a fiat currency. That is, our money is not a physical thing of which there is a determinate amount. Our money is created by fiat by our government. (More properly, by a semi-autonomous organization created by the government for the purpose.) The fabulous wealth of the most wealthy citizens is, therefore, highly suspect. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerberg are both very wealthy men, but even though Zuckerberg should be about to buy something like 42 aircraft carriers with his fortune, he certainly couldn’t. The further fact that much of our economy is debt-based rather than wealth based—while pretty obviously not a good idea—means that figuring out how wealthy or poor someone is is even more complicated. People of very modest incomes have way more buying power than you would expect on paper.

Since this is the internet, I will emphasize that I am not saying that there is no such thing as poverty, or that poverty isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that poverty is a complicated thing, with the word “poor” meaning many very different things. The poor, however one is defining them, should always be an object of love since they are God’s creatures, and not a club with which to beat people. Since everything seems to require a name these days, I suggest the preferential option for clarity.

2 thoughts on “Articles About The Poor Should Define Their Terms

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s