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will the poor “always be with us”?

I’ve interspersed this post with pictures from a work trip I participated in last year in El Progreso, Honduras.  It was the first time I witnessed the realities of abject poverty firsthand, and it utterly changed the course of my life.  I would recommend this experience or a similar one to anyone interested in taking seriously the Christian call of advocacy for the poor.  This post was inspired by my undergraduate courses in social work.

The poor will always be with you,” famously spoke Jesus of Nazareth (to the chagrin of optimists everywhere).

I’ve certainly always considered myself a dreamer.  I put up inspirational Facebook statuses, I enjoy microfinance, and I used to go around saying a certain phrase so much that my nickname actually became “brightside.”

Maybe you’re the same way, you want to prove the Teacher wrong, you think that we can one day eliminate poverty.

But take a walk around the neighborhood and it doesn’t look so good.

Honduras boasts some of the highest poverty rates in all of Latin America.

Here in America, around 1/3 of Illinois residents live in poverty.

And over 300 children go to bed homeless here in Champaign county every night.

I sometimes catch myself wondering just where I might be today were I not lucky enough to have been born to two loving and economically-blessed parents in Chicago, IL.

Suddenly filled with strange guilt, I shudder at the thought.

It makes me want to do something about the chaotic inequality around me.

But before I act, I know I must think.

Trying to overturn the systems of injustice that infect this world is a process that must begin with a strong period of self-examination.

Speaker and author Peggy McIntosh, in her landmark Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege, proposes that true change can only occur when we embrace the fact that not only are others disadvantaged by the inherent forces of racism and sexism in this world, but that we ourselves are often benefitted by these same systems.

Before we can authentically avow the underprivileged, she argues, we must first come to terms with the oft-hidden privileges we are afforded by our own status.  The healing process only begins when we confront the trespasses of our lives and recognize the privilege gap in light of our own role in its preponderance.


It’s interesting, when talking about poverty, social justice is a term I use often (as do we in social work, student affairs, housing, and on the social medias).

It’s a veritable buzzword.

But although social justice means plenty of different things to lots of different people, it is often used flippantly, quite carelessly, and it’s consequently forgotten that social justice is economic justice.

There is no healing without economic empowerment.

Feeding people in a dignified manner only happens when we allow them the commercial opportunities to make enough dough to put their bread on the table.

But when we toss around phrases like social justice as if they would improve others’ lives without asking anything of ourselves, we are hardly considering the gargantuan legislative, moralistic, and philosophical shifts that would accompany such a movement.

For we can hardly say that we wish for cacao farmers to be freed from modern-day slavery as we continue to purchase and consume unethically-sourced chocolate products.

We can hardly smile and pretend everything is alright while we’ve got blood on our tooth.

What I’m getting at here is that poverty is so terrible not only because it denies others the opportunity for a normal life, but because it affords us an exploitative and excessive one at the expense of the poor, who suffer in scandalous silence.

I here affirm a teaching I find revealed by Ms. McIntosh, our Jesus of Nazareth, and by my own personal experience – namely that justice for the impoverished and the oppressed does not begin with us sharing a Facebook post or a tweet or even with us attending a workshop on diversity.  True advocacy for the poor can only take root when we realize that we ourselves must sacrifice some of our privileged capital in order to afford the “other” equal footing.

If that sounds like blatant Marxism, you’re misreading me.

I’m talking about using a capitalist framework to advantage, empower, dignify, and defend at-risk populations.

I’m talking about microfinance, fair-trade collectives of Colombian coffee farmers, REBBL Tonic, social entrepreneurship.

I’m talking about making business beautiful again.

But these creative solutions can only begin with a candid account of our sins:

No, I do not care about my environmental impact.  Yes, I live larger than is necessary at times.  No, if I had two coats I would not give one away.  Yes, I enjoy having more than my neighbor.

Until we – the blessed and the fortunate – are willing to admit that we deeply benefit from the poor being poor, there will no solution, no escape from this cycle of poverty for the lowest class.

So will we ever be able to eliminate poverty?

Maybe it’s not entirely surprising that once again, Jesus was right on the money.

For until many more of us ordinary, hardworking, ostensibly middle/upper-class folks own up to the responsibilities and the destinies we have been given, the poor will truly always be with us.


Ideas for this post came largely from the inspiration and conversation of several good friends and mentors including Brett Tucker, Dave Batstone, Paul Magelli, Ethan Batstone, Vaneitta Goines, Brittany Koteles, Rakhee Kashyap, Bryant Kuramitsu, Ann Abbott, Shikhank Sharma, and Jan Carter-Black.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. It doesn’t matter the system; socialism, capitalism, whatever the case may be – unless you castrate a man’s brain, there will always be the “mine first” impulse. That impulse is what will prevent poverty from ever disappearing…to somehow police the effects of that impulse would prove monumentally hard simply because of the massive amount of resources required and the breadth of the problem itself. Which is to say nothing of the us-first indoctrination prevalent literally everywhere in the world. To truly eliminate poverty would require humanity to evolve.

    On the other hand, we can certainly drastically limit it. It’ll require a ton of creativity, on behalf of private industry, developers, etc, but it can be done.

    March 19, 2013
    • In the anti-trafficking space, we often dichotomize the problem of slavery as vulnerability + exploitation = human trafficking. Economic and social vulnerability leaves folks at risk for being trafficked. Exploitation fills the gap. You feel me?

      Poverty and coercion.

      You fight the first by investing in microfinance, the second by prosecuting traffickers and shutting down brothels.

      You eliminate one, slavery no longer exists.

      Carry the Fire, the group I work with, looks to tackle the first problem. It’s a more preventative approach, and one we hope will be fruitful in the long run. There need to be groups tackling the more spiritual side as well, but we definitely feel called to the more economic, business-like approach.

      all this to say, @your comment about changing the mind of man itself, I always say if our goal is to end slavery, we have to choose between ending poverty (vulnerability) or changing human nature (exploitation).

      I like to think we’ve chosen the easier task.

      ending poverty doesn’t seem so bad in comparison to fighting the forces of greed, darkness, and the male libido!

      March 19, 2013
  2. Brett #

    Here you go, Ryan, as requested =)

    Often as Christians, we take Jesus’ statements of “you will always have the poor among you” to mean “it is not worth trying to do anything.” However that is the opposite of what Jesus was saying here. Jesus was revealing the condition of the disciple’s hearts, one of hypocrisy (like mine often) by quoting Deuteronomy 15:11 which the disciples would have very likely known. It says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'” Rather than thinking to do nothing, God’s logic says “since there will always be poor among you (which is a promise in the Word of God), you shall live openhanded and give liberally.”

    March 26, 2013
    • That’s a wonderful insight, thank you for sharing it publicly here as well. Interesting that your answer to the “will the poor always be with us?” question is yes, but it’s not a hopeless kind of yes. It’s a yes and we’re going to do something about it.

      What you’re saying definitely makes sense. Good exegesis. Maybe you’re right in affirming the poor will always be with us. Regardless of whether that is true or not, we’d better get to work – these scriptures can never be taken as an excuse for inaction or to justify our greed.

      March 26, 2013

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