Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Why poverty will never end

Outside the Box
John Mangun
Business Mirror

One of the most philosophically challenging passages in the Bible relates a short discussion between Our Lord and His disciples. A woman, in the custom of the time, pours expensive perfume on Jesus. The disciples are amazed that He allowed this to be done, calling this use of the perfume “a waste.” They scolded that the perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.

Jesus responds that, “The poor you will always have with you,” and thus begins a 2,000-year controversy.

Those few words have been used as an excuse by some to ignore the teachings of the Church and justify that it is a waste of money to be charitable to the poor. Some in the Church have used the words to say that the care and feeding of the poor is a never-ending task that is somewhat like a punishment because poverty can never be eliminated. Others see these words as a basis to attack Christianity as a hypocritical way of thinking as it goes through useless motions knowing that it can never succeed; further, that the Church believes helping the poor is a waste of time but gives it an excuse to take money from the faithful.

If Jesus had been the head of an international think tank or nongovernment organization, presiding over a multiyear, multimillion-dollar study that finally concluded that poverty is a never-ending condition, there would be Senate hearings and calls from the “pro-poor” that more tax money must be immediately spent to solve the problem.

The “pro-poor” and even well-intentioned people firmly believe that the problem of poverty is, at the end, a situation of wealth distribution, the distribution of a finite resource. Because I have more, then you will have less. If the “rich” give up their wealth, then the poor will no longer be poor. If that were true, then the disciples were correct and Jesus was wrong not distributing the perfume to the poor. I doubt that is the case.

If wealth distribution were the problem, then poverty should have been solved decades ago, as countless amounts of money, of wealth, have been redistributed to the poor around the world.

In 2002, the Philippine government spent P720 billion, the equivalent of P84,000 for a family of six living in poverty. After nearly 40 years of US President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, social spending costing literally trillions of dollars, incidence of poverty in the USA has not significantly reduced. The overall percentage of the population considered “poor” is about the same.

Because of the brevity of the Bible, we often tend to think that His words are little more than like a five-minute, shallow homily from some priest who seems more interested in being invited out for Sunday brunch than teaching and educating. For a man that people called Rabbi, Teacher, it is likely that there was more to the conversation than is recorded by Saint Matthew. It is likely that Jesus spoke at length to the disciples as to why the poor would always be with us.

Rarely do any studies of poverty look at the personal use of resources, as opposed to the public use and redistribution of resources. The thesis is that if only enough public funding could be made available to the poor, then poverty would be eliminated. No one seems to want to study what happens after the wealth has been redistributed to these poor. I think my son Chris found the answer after working two days at a local fast-food restaurant.

He came home from his job amazed at the amount of food that is wasted. Half-eaten hamburgers, chicken with plenty of meat still on the bones, spaghetti that was barely touched, all wasted and thrown away. This particular restaurant is at a busy intersection frequented by jeepney riders and also by people driving Mercedeses. Economic class means nothing. They all throw away literally tons of food every year. The same people who leave P50 of uneaten food are the same ones who feel they are doing their antipoverty wealth distribution by giving P1 or P2 to the street children in front of the fast-food outlet.

And when many of the street children have collected enough pesos, they run into the food outlet to buy ice cream, not rice for the family table.

My son told me that a politician of national stature comes in every day or so. This is a name and face that you would immediately recognize. Chris remarked to me that the politician never wastes a single bite of food. The politician’s background is humble, born in a far-flung province and raised in a low-cost government housing project and attending public school in Manila.

And something else. The customers who drive Mercedeses and wear the expensive jewelry tend to be the customers that waste the least. Maybe that is one reason they are not “poor.”

Perhaps what Jesus meant and what He told His disciples that was not recorded was that one reason the poor will always be with us is that their personal use of resources may be a factor in why they are poor. Maybe a nation is the same way. It might not be how wealthy you are that makes you rich or poor, but how you use the wealth that you have.

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