Tag Archives: poverty

Poverty, Inc.

Michael Matheson Miller
Run time: 94 minutes
Available now on DVD & Netflix
Action Institute

In the early 1980s, Ethiopia was in the grip of a terrible famine. I visited that country last summer and things have improved, but they still talk about the song that helped save millions: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The problem is that the song’s lyrics are steeped in an ignorance that perpetuates the idea that Africa is a barren: “Where nothing ever grows. No rain or rivers flow.” The lyrics give the wrong impression of the resource-rich continent. Too many people believe Africans live with their hands out to the wealthy developed world and that they’re incapable of looking after themselves.

Poverty, Inc., exposes the reality behind foreign aid (aka the “poverty industry”) and the “hand out” mentality to fighting global poverty. The truth is that it just doesn’t work. The film was produced by Michael Matheson Miller, a Legatus columnist and research fellow at the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based think tank which promotes free enterprise within the framework of Christian theology. Acton president Fr. Robert Sirico narrates.

Miller conducted over 200 interviews in more than 20 countries. His documentary leads with a quote from Machiavelli: “The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power. And the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power.” And its tagline is also telling: “Fighting poverty is big business, but who profits the most?”

For anyone interested in philanthropy, global trade, relief organizations or the roots of poverty, this film is a must-see. The film shatters current perceptions of global charity and promotes entrepreneurship as the most effective method of alleviating world poverty. It shows how the “aid industry” perpetuates poverty by inadvertently removing the factors necessary to helping the poor get ahead.

PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief.


Poverty, justice and Christian love

MICHAEL MILLER writes that there are many problems with the way we engage questions of poverty both in the U.S. and abroad, but one underlying philosophical issue that is often neglected is that we have replaced charity with humanitarianism, a hollowed-out secular and materialist vision of Christian love. We need a more human vision of Christian love . . . 

Michael M. Miller

Michael M. Miller

Concern for the poor is at the heart of Christianity. Saint John Paul II called poverty one of the greatest moral challenges of our time, and to ignore the plight of the poor has consequences for our eternal souls.

Pope Francis addressed poverty in Evangelii Gaudium: “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us” (#54).

The consequence of apathy in the face of suffering is seen clearly in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In his commentary on this passage, St. Augustine notes that it was not his great wealth that sent the rich man to hell, it was his indifference. He just didn’t care. He ignored the poor man.

Care for the poor is not simply a question of charity, it’s also a question of justice. We are called to help the poor, but at the same time, we’re not called just to “do something.” Having a heart for the poor is not enough. We also need a mind for the poor. Our charity and justice must be ordered by reason and oriented to truth.

Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate: “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality” (#3).

This means our charity and our hunger for justice must be rooted in the virtue of prudence. German philosopher Josef Pieper defined prudence as seeing the world as it is and acting accordingly. This is why prudence is often called the mother of the virtues, because we can’t be just or brave or temperate if we don’t see the world as it is and act accordingly.

Prudence is especially important when we try to help the poor. Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us that justice can be destroyed in two ways: not only by “the violent act of the man who possesses power,” but also by the “false prudence of the sage.” Imprudent charity can actually increase injustice. Sometimes our help can actually make things worse.

There are many problems with the way we engage questions of poverty both in the U.S. and abroad, but one underlying philosophical issue that is often neglected is that we have replaced charity with humanitarianism. What is the difference? Humanitarianism focuses primarily on providing comfort and meeting the material needs of people, but this is only a small part of charity. Humanitarianism limits its horizons to the material, and thereby misses the creative capacity, inherent dignity, and eternal destiny of man.

Humanitarianism is a hollowed out secular and materialist vision of Christian love. It is a bad copy. Yet even Christian organizations often operate under a humanitarian model. As Pope Francis has warned, the Church is not supposed to be just one NGO (nongovernmental organization) among many.

Charity, on the other hand, comes from the word caritas in Latin or agape in Greek. Charity is Christian love. To love is to seek after the good of the other. That means that while good works and care for the poor are an essential part of charity, they are not the whole thing.

To desire the good of the other ultimately means promoting and encouraging human flourishing, all the while keeping the eternal destiny of the person in mind. Does this mean Christian charity does not care about material needs? Of course not, but it realizes this is not enough. The provision of material needs should be at the service of promoting human flourishing, helping the person to become all God has called him to be.

Ideas do indeed have consequences, and the shift from humanitarianism back to a richer and more human vision of Christian love changes the way we engage with the poor — not simply as objects of our charity, but as the subjects and protagonists of their own story of development.

It also makes us less focused on ourselves and more focused on the people we are trying to help. Pope Francis has exhorted us to be on the front lines with the poor. It is time for a revolution in charity — in thought and in deed.

MICHAEL MATHESON MILLER is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, the director of PovertyCure and host of PovertyCure DVD Series.

Business and the option for the poor

SAM GREGG writes that lifting people out of poverty — and not just material poverty but also moral and spiritual poverty — does not necessarily mean that the most effective action is to implement yet another welfare program. There is no reason to assume that the preferential option for the poor is somehow a preferential option for big government . . .

Sam Gregg

Sam Gregg

Like the term “social justice,” the phrase “preferential option for the poor” is part of the Catholic lexicon. Some use the phrase to insist on interventionist economic policies. Catholic social teaching, however, leads to more nuanced conclusions — economically and theologically.

The term “option for the poor” gained traction in Catholic thought in the late 1960s and ’70s. The term had influenced various forms of liberation theology throughout that period, but such claims tend to downplay the fact that the Church has always maintained a special outreach to the poor.

Old Testament prophets spoke clearly against the oppression of the poor, not to mention Christ’s statements that he himself may be recognized in the poor and in those who suffer persecution. Moreover, love for the poor and marginalized was put into practice from the Church’s genesis. In the Roman Empire, for example, the pagan Greeks and Romans were astonished at Catholics’ willingness to aid the sick and disabled, the elderly and abandoned whether they were Christians or not.

The Catholic understanding of poverty, however, doesn’t make the mistake of imagining that poverty can be reduced to issues of material deprivation. In the 1980s, in the midst of the Church’s sharpest critique of liberation theology influenced by Marxism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reminded Catholics that poverty had a rather more expansive meaning in Christian belief, thought and action.

From Christianity’s standpoint, everyone is poor inasmuch that all of us are deeply inadequate in the face of God’s justice and mercy. Why else would Christ need to come into the world to save us from our sins and flaws? Indeed the Christian embrace of poverty involves everyone exercising detachment from material wealth: “It is this sort of poverty, made up of detachment, trust in God, sobriety and a readiness to share, that Jesus declared blessed” (Libertatis Conscientia, #67)

What does living out the option for the poor mean in practice? We must engage in works of charity — those activities that often address specific dimensions of poverty in ways that no state program ever could. And this means giving of our time, energy, and human and monetary capital in ways that bring Christ’s light into some of the darkest places on earth.

Yet this does not mean that Catholics are required to give something to everything, or even that Catholics must give away everything they own. As Fr. James Schall, SJ, writes, “If we take all the existing world wealth and simply distribute it, what would happen? It would quickly disappear; all would be poor.” Put another way, living out the option for the poor may well involve those people with a talent for creating wealth doing precisely that.

The option for the poor, however, does not rule out any form of government assistance to those in need. Yet lifting people out of poverty — and not just material poverty but also moral and spiritual poverty — does not necessarily mean that the most effective action is to implement yet another welfare program. There is no reason to assume that the preferential option for the poor is somehow a preferential option for big government. Often, being an entrepreneur and starting a business which brings jobs, wages, and opportunities to places where they did not hitherto exist is a greater exercise of love for the poor (and usually far more economically effective) than another government welfare initiative.

The Catholic understanding of the option for the poor also means recognizing that those who suffer from material deprivation are human beings graced with reason and free will. Hence, like everyone else, they are  also capable of engaging in some form of integral human flourishing. Sometimes a welfare program or new regulation is not the best way to help them — especially when such measures actually impede or discourage people from using their initiative and/or choosing to work.

Though we rarely think about it this way, deregulation is often a concrete way to promote the option for the poor. Living out the option for those in need could be manifested, for example, in working to remove tariffs that block the poor from global markets, or which encourage people to stay in U.S. industries that are becoming uncompetitive in a global economy. It might also involve making the process of creating a business faster, or providing more transparent, less bureaucratically burdensome ways for people to migrate to countries where there are more opportunities.

There are many ways of living out the option for the poor, whatever our vocation in life. With some of the creativity that’s essential for success of business, Catholics can indeed help bring liberty to many of those burdened by poverty.

DR. SAMUEL GREGG is research director at the Acton Institute and the author, most recently, of Becoming Europe and Tea Party Catholic.

Poverty, social justice, and the role of business

Michael Miller writes that governments can help by providing clear private property rights, rule of law and justice. But they cannot create wealth. The Church is essential because it helps build a moral culture that supports strong families and vibrant communities. But the Church’s function is not to create wealth. Wealth is created through entrepreneurship . . .

Michael M. Miller

What role should the business leader and the entrepreneur play in helping the poor and promoting social justice in the developing world? As Legatus celebrates its 25th anniversary and looks forward to the future, this is an important question for reflection.

When we look at the reality of poverty in the developing world, the statistics can be overwhelming. Over 2 billion people live on less than $2 per day, and hundreds of millions are hungry. The Church lists almsgiving, fasting and prayer as the “three eminently good works.” All Christians, no matter our state in life, are called to be detached from material things and to be generous with our wealth. But what else can we do? Is there a specific place for business leaders in helping the poor?

In my experience, I don’t hear much about the role of business with regard to poverty and social justice. I find an implicit — if not explicit — suspicion about business as if it’s somehow part of the problem and cause of poverty. In fact, several businesspeople have told me that they don’t have much to say or contribute to these discussions. They’re missing the important role that business leaders and entrepreneurs can play in helping the poor — not only by giving alms, but by forming partnerships with the poor, training, investing and helping to build businesses.

Poverty is complex and there are many needs that require all sorts of skills and gifts. Emergency assistance has its place, but the way to alleviate poverty in the long run is for people in the developing world to create wealth and prosperity for their families and communities. When we think about the developing world, we often wonder why such poverty exists and how to alleviate it. But those aren’t the right questions. Poverty has been the norm for most people throughout history. The real question is: How do we create wealth?

That’s where businesspeople come in. Governments can help by providing clear private property rights, rule of law and justice. But they cannot create wealth. The Church is essential because it helps build a moral culture that supports strong families and vibrant communities. But the Church’s function is not to create wealth. Wealth is created through business and entrepreneurship.

The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides discussed eight different levels of charity. He argues that the highest level of charity is to give a loan or partner with someone so they can engage in productive enterprise and no longer be dependent upon others.

I met a young Kenyan businessman named Joshua living in one of the largest slums in Africa. He had searched unsuccessfully for work for two years. Finally he borrowed some money — about $8 — from a friend to start a small business, which I had the chance to visit. It’s small, and he works from 5 am to 10 pm almost every day. But he’s growing the business and saving money to pay for his child’s education. He hopes to move to a place where he can acquire private property and register his business. That’s just one small example of how a small loan or investment can change someone’s life.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just small loans that are needed. Also necessary is the growth of the small- and medium-sized business sector, which accounts for close to 75% of employment and GDP in the U.S. and Europe. In the developing world, however, there are very few mid-sized companies. There are many reasons for this, but one is lack of access to financing, training and partnerships. This is an area where Catholic business leaders could bring their skills and their desire to make a difference. As my friend Andreas Widmer, author of The Pope and the CEO, says, “We give aid to Africa, but we don’t do business with Africa.” What if Catholic business owners started doing business with the developing world?

Earlier this year, I met an entrepreneur in Haiti who makes solar panels. He worked with a solar-panel expert to develop appropriate technology. They received training from a Michigan-based company with expertise in construction. Some of their contacts came from a Protestant organization called Partners Worldwide, which connects business owners in the U.S. to entrepreneurs in the developing world. Can you imagine what would happen if Catholic business owners and entrepreneurs were involved? Think of how many parishes in the U.S. have twin parishes in the developing world.

As Legatus moves into its next 25 years, I encourage you to think about how to bring your faith and business skills to bear on questions of poverty, social justice and development. It’s not easy and there isn’t single or simple solution to poverty, but the role that faithful Catholic businesspeople can play has been overlooked. It’s time to change the paradigm.

Michael Matheson Miller is a research fellow and director of media at the Acton Institute. He is currently leading PovertyCure, an international network of organizations which promotes enterprise solutions to poverty rooted in a Christian understanding of the human person.

Wealth, profit and the poor

Andrew Abela, Ph.D., asks how much of our own personal profits should we be willing to sacrifice in order to avoid or reduce layoffs during an economic downturn? That question requires conscientious discernment by those involved. While it’s perfectly legitimate to make a profit, the Church teaches that it’s not acceptable to do so illegitimately . . .

Dr. Andrew Abela

Dr. Andrew Abela

In today’s culture, successful business leaders are often the object of scorn. Some elected officials want to play Robin Hood and spread their wealth around. That said, it’s worth exploring whether it’s all right to make a profit.

The Church has made it abundantly clear that making a profit is morally acceptable. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote that “the Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well” (#35).

Further, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “profits are necessary. … They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business, and they guarantee employment” (#2432).

However, John Paul says profit should not be seen as a business’ only goal. “The purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society” (Centesimus Annus, #35).

Still less should it be seen as the highest goal of a business, where everything else is subordinated to profitability. “A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable” (CCC, #2424).

“Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty” (#21).

John Paul II agreed with that sentiment. “Christians charged with responsibility in the business world are challenged to combine the legitimate pursuit of profit with a deeper concern for the spread of solidarity,” he said in a message to participants of The Business Executive: Social Responsibility and Globalization conference in 2004.

But do we have a moral obligation to protect the capital that is entrusted to us as investment in our business? Clearly, the answer is yes. No one is served if the bottom line is ignored, leading to the business going bankrupt.

“Man, to whom in Genesis God entrusted the earth, has the duty to make all the earth’s goods fruitful, committing himself to use them to satisfy the multiple needs of each member of the human family,” Pope Benedict told members of the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation in 2008. “One of the recurring metaphors of the Gospel is, in effect, exactly that of the steward. With the heart of a faithful administrator man must, therefore, administer the resources entrusted to him by God, putting them at the disposition of all.”

It’s important to avoid a situation where “directors of business companies, forgetful of their trust, betray the rights of those whose savings they have undertaken to administer,” Pope Pius XI wrote in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, #132.

What should we do if we face a choice between immoral activity and allowing a significant loss to the capital that was entrusted to us? While managers have a moral responsibility to put forward their best efforts, they are never justified in doing evil in order to keep the company solvent. A central moral principle from the Catechism is that “one may never do evil so that good may result from it” (#1789).

How much of our own personal profits should we be willing to sacrifice in order to avoid or reduce layoffs during an economic downturn? That question requires conscientious discernment by those involved. In such situations, the Church counsels us to consider carefully what we truly need (with the virtue of temperance in mind), understand honestly what is due in justice to the employees at risk, and determine what course of action would be most consistent with the principle of solidarity.

“No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, or even to give to others what he himself needs to maintain his station in life becomingly and decently,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. “But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains” (#36).

The Catechism confirms this sentiment in paragraph 2407: “In economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, to moderate our attachment to the goods of this world; of the virtue of justice, to preserve our neighbor’s rights and to render what is his or her due; and of solidarity, following the Golden Rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake … became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9).”

A charter member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, Andrew V. Abela, Ph.D., is chair of the Business and Economics department at the Catholic University of America and an associate professor of marketing.

Cross-country hero

Jason Christensen’s ride for real hope and change did just that for the less fortunate . . .

Jason Christensen

Jason Christensen

It might seem that a 5,000-mile trek across the country is an odd way to raise awareness of poverty in the United States. But Jason Christensen, a member of Legatus’ Colorado Springs Chapter, saw the potential in a cross-country bicycle trip to do just that — and to raise funds to help the poor.

As the former director of Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs, Christensen has spent years working to alleviate poverty. He’s witnessed the tremendous work the Church has done on this front, and Christensen knew he could help.

Man on a mission

“Three years ago Catholic Charities issued a policy paper on poverty in the U.S.,” Christensen explained. “The idea was to cut it in half by 2020. At the time, there were 38 million people living in poverty. Today it’s over 40 million.”

Father Matt Ruhl, a Jesuit from Kansas City, proposed a cross-country bike ride that would showcase the Church’s commitment to the poor while raising funds for Catholic Charities’ Caritas Center of Kansas City. Christensen heard about the ride last May, and the idea touched his heart so he signed on.

“Father Ruhl was frustrated by the media’s portrayal of the Church because of the scandals,” said Christensen. “This would be a way to unify Catholics across the political spectrum.”

The ride coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Catholic Charities in the U.S. The ride — called Cycling for Change — began in Washington state on Memorial Day and concluded in Key West, Fla., on Sept. 4. They finished in 99 days and celebrated with a Mass on the 100th day.

crosscountrymug2Participants rode four to seven hours every day, and rested every seventh day. The core group consisted of 12 riders. Several other cyclists joined the ride for different segments of the country. Altogether, over 400 people participated.

“When Jason came to me with the mission, I was a little hesitant,” said Lenore Christensen, Jason’s wife. “However, I saw the passion in his eyes about helping this cause — to be a voice for those in poverty and to promote the good work of the Church.”

The Christensen family and countless others tracked the riders’ progress online and supported them through prayer.

“Jason needed my strength in prayers — not only for his safety, but also for the 40+ million people living in poverty and for our Church that is trying to do something about it,” she said.

Pilgrims’ journey

It took Kansas City’s Catholic Charities three years to organize Cycling for Change at the national level.

“They created the route and mapped it out. They looked up Catholic Charities organizations along the route, and called to find lodging for the riders,” said Rochelle Schlortt, communications director for Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs.

“We slept in parish basements, family houses, Catholic universities, the occasional motel and outside in sleeping bags,” said Jason.

Riders also participated in service projects along the way. They visited a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Wash., worked at a food bank in Ennis, Mont., and spent time with children at the Centro Hispano Católico in Miami — just to name a few.

Christensen said that daily Mass sustained him during his time on the road.

crosscountrymug1“It was a fabulous, peaceful way to conclude the day,” he said. “And we didn’t always have access to a Church. We went from trailer parks to state parks.”

What made the ride even more of a triumph for Christensen was that he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last year. Because of this condition, Christensen took time off in the middle of the ride to be with family and see his doctor.

Despite the setback, there were a number of high points for Christensen — including his meeting with a man named Lawrence at a Catholic transitional housing facility in Seattle. Lawrence had been sober for six months after living on the streets for 15 years. Now he plans to open his own coffee shop. Christensen said the man’s energy and spunk reminded him of himself.

Another emotional moment was when riders stopped at the Hospitality Center of Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, Wash. A veteran named Robert, who had been homeless for years, thanked the riders. Then he told them he wanted to make a donation. Christensen and the crew were uncomfortable about accepting anything from the veteran, who was clearly not a “man of means.” But Robert insisted — bringing the parable of the widow’s mite to mind.

“When you’re riding 70 to 90 miles a day, you have a lot of time to think,” said Christensen. “There is such amazing beauty in this country, and I’m not just speaking about the Columbia River Gorge. It’s in the love of the people we saw. We met a lot of people who were living on the margins. They have great reason to be downtrodden, yet there is a lot of hope out there.”

Christensen also witnessed how grateful people are when they’re given a little bit of help.

“Our problems are nothing compared to what others encounter every single day of their lives when trapped in poverty,” said Lenore. “I never stopped to think about the magnitude of what the poor encounter every day. Just trying to figure out where to eat, how to pay the bills, how their children could get what they needed — it’s unimaginable.”

Ultimately, Cycling for Change raised $500,000. More than 3.5 million people heard about the ride through media coverage.

“I’ve always believed my discipleship is in solidarity with the poor,” said Jason. “That will always be with me. I believe we honor Christ when we care for the poor.”

Christensen laments the many misconceptions about the poor — misconceptions that melt when one actually engages them. His fellow riders all experienced a real conversion after sitting down and eating with people at soup kitchens.

“All too often we say we’ll take care of the poor by making a contribution,” he said. “Our Holy Father has said that is not enough. We all have to engage in that caritas, that charity.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.


Marian House

Colorado Springs’ river of hope

One of the projects closest to Jason Christensen’s heart is Marian House — the largest soup kitchen in Colorado Springs and a poverty reduction center. Marian House is a part of Catholic Charities, and it benefited from Cycling for Change’s ride through Colorado Springs.

“Everybody who comes to Marian House is fed,” said Christensen, a member of Legatus’ Colorado Springs Chapter and former director of Colorado Springs Catholic Charities. The facility serves hot, nutritious meals for between 600 and 700 people 365 days a year.

If guests want to take part in poverty reduction services, they’re given rights and responsibilities. Marian House helps those who are willing to help themselves, Christensen explained.

A master case manager assesses each guest in 22 different categories, analyzing each person’s housing, education, life skills, mental health, transportation, child care, employment/income and medical health profile. The guest is then rated on a scale from one to 10. They’re reassessed every 30, 60 and 90 days.

“Most people come in under a four,” Christensen said. “We try to move them as high as we can.”

Christensen uses the analogy of a crew team. If one person drops an oar, the entire boat spins around. The same is true of each person’s life. If one of the above categories is not working well, it can push them into poverty.

“We decided to honor the dignity of the whole person and go about helping them in a systematic way,” he explained. “We want to get beyond the stabilization model to self-sufficiency.”

—Sabrina Arena Ferrisi