Material and anthropological poverty - The CARF Blog - Experts
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Mr. Cristian Mendoza
21 May, 20

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Material and anthropological poverty

This article summarizes some of the main perspectives from which poverty is understood. It presents the initiatives of the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, as well as those of some professors and research centers dedicated to this topic. The aim of this article is to approach this problem from the perspective of the Social Doctrine of the Church in order to emphasize that it is an anthropological problem that goes beyond the scarcity of economic resources. Poverty can be translated in terms of violence and corruption, disregard for life and the most needy, etc., if it is considered as a moral or anthropological problem. This anthropological poverty gives rise to economic poverty, while economic poverty does not necessarily generate anthropological or moral poverty.In addition, this paper discusses some of the solutions to poverty, stressing the importance of multiplying human relationships for the benefit of greater social know-how. Social development is achieved not when all people do the same thing, but when each person knows how to carry out his or her own task excellently.

Material and anthropological poverty

An approach from the doctrine of the Church

The Social Doctrine of the Church is a teaching lived by millions of people that deals with current problems. This social theory deals "with those things which, being incorporated into the Tradition, become ancient, thus offering occasions and material for its enrichment, and the life of faith is also part of the fruitful activity of millions and millions of men, who at the impulse of the social magisterium have endeavored to draw inspiration from it with a view to their own commitment to the world". John Paul II (1991), p. 3.

These teachings contain "the moral science that is made in the light of reason and faith about the life of man in society". Bellocq, A. (2012), p. 341. These teachings do not pretend to indicate which are the specific instruments for organizing society, which are generally political or economic instruments, but this reflection can in fact help those whose mission it is to safeguard the common good in the political or economic sphere. Specifically, this help can be delineated as a conceptual framework within a tradition that responds to what is most essentially human. In this study, we will take the Social Doctrine of the Church as the philosophical foundation for studying poverty since, as recent studies on this problem affirm, "in the practical task of identifying and measuring poverty in a society, very different methods can be chosen, where the social philosophy that underlies these choices becomes evident. It may be one of the ethical philosophies or one of the approaches I have discussed, or a combination of them." Asselin, L. M. (2009), p. 190.

The authors chosen for our reflection have in common their attention to the dignity of the person as a solution to poverty. We have chosen them because the Social Doctrine of the Church shares this attention and also recognizes that many of the concepts that enable us to forge socio-economic laws and contracts come from a tradition that predates economic science or even politics in its present terms. The meaning of "person", "society", "common good", etc., that lead us to elaborate a specific jurisdiction and establish a rule of law are part of the common heritage of humanity. These terms have been carefully guarded by the different religious traditions of peoples and, in the West, it is the Judeo-Christian tradition that has preserved them.

The religious tradition that is at the basis of Western civilization has been confronted over the centuries with other sources that have enriched it. Specifically, with Roman law and Greek philosophical reflection. Western civilization is not identified with the Christian religion, although neither are they mutually opposed or limited. The unity between believing and working, serving God and the nation, praying and promoting development is in any case found in the person who is the one who acts, works and relates to others in society. For this reason Christian social thought takes into account both reason and faith with special attention to the dignity of the human person.

Individuals act according to their convictions and among these, religion constitutes a model of action that shapes them as human beings. Therefore, believers of a specific religion think about social reality differently than believers of other religions. And this can lead to some differences in the understanding of reality. For this reason the Roman Pontiffs have reminded the faithful of the Church that, on the one hand, the analysis of society is part of a series of matters not contained in Christian revelation. Each believer can forge his own opinions on how best to organize society, even if they do not coincide with the opinions of others. But, on the other hand, there are some social perspectives that are more in tune with the theological tradition of the Church. The social vision most in keeping with Christian revelation is that which takes into consideration human life understood in its full, total sense. Paul VI expressed this idea in these words: "development cannot be reduced to mere economic growth. To be authentic, it must be integral, that is, it must promote all men and the whole man". Paul VI (1967), n. 14.

The poverty is a social reality that is of interest to the Social Doctrine of the Church, since it means specific living conditions for those who lack material well-being and a series of elements necessary to live a dignified life. However, since it is a social issue, there is room for different visions that call for numerous efforts in the political and economic spheres and in the social thinking of peoples. As it is a complex problem, different perspectives are involved: sociological, statistical, economic, etc. Our specific perspective is that of the Social Doctrine of the Church and of those who share this centrality of the human person. For this purpose, we have called on numerous sources which, while not having the same degree of scientific depth, add a certain value to this perspective.

Having indicated the frame of reference, it is appropriate to define the problem. "Poverty consists of any form of inequity, which is a source of social exclusion, in the distribution of living conditions essential to human dignity. These living conditions correspond to the capacities of individuals, households and communities to meet their basic needs in the following dimensions: salary, education, health, nutrition and food, health and clean water, work and employment, home and living environment, access to means of production, access to the market and finally community participation and social peace." Asselin, L. M. (2009), p. 3.

"The current literature, and also the teachings of the Church." Cfr. Francis I (2015b)Inequality, they speak of inequity and not inequality to emphasize the existence of an unjust inequality. Human beings are naturally unequal, since they have different talents and capabilities, but the word inequity refers to an inequality that is not the result of man's natural conditions, but has somehow been unfairly imposed on his way of life. Asselin refers to this unjust inequality when defining poverty as a multidimensional problem.

The response of the political sphere

In our days we easily see poor societies. These are the existential situations of individuals who have few material means at their disposal and few opportunities for economic, political, cultural and sometimes even spiritual development. Over the years, poverty has been gradually decreasing as the world shows remarkable economic growth. But it is undeniable that the multiplication of wealth does not occur in the same way among all citizens.

The United Nations have set themselves the goal of eliminating poverty by establishing Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015 in order to achieve the development of the most disadvantaged peoples. These Millennium Development Goals (Millennium Development Goals) a number of new goals were added, dealing with public policies that were also of interest to the more developed nations. This set of goals is called the Sustainable Development Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) and were designed to be applied from 2015 to 2030.

Many of the public policies implemented by the Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015 highlighted the problems of development in poor nations. And therefore the economic effort of nations was focused on solving these shortcomings: education, medical and hygienic services, attention to child malnutrition and women's dignity, urban poverty and insecurity, etc.

In setting the Sustainable Development Goals, the most developed nations committed to invest one hundred billion dollars between 2015 and 2030. It is reasonable to allocate fiscal resources for development, but promoting development in a foreign nation is not always justifiable. The governments of the more developed nations were challenged by the local benefit that the Millennium Development Goals had yielded between 2000 and 2015 and had to accept that these goals referred to the less developed nations.

The United Nations Global Agenda therefore took a turn to include some public policies that could also benefit the richest nations from 2015 to 2030. For this reason, the sustainable development objectives are more numerous than those of the millennium, and include public policies relating to the construction and financing of housing, economic aid to favor demographic growth, exchange of information and financial investment, etc. In short, the United Nations Global Agenda has for years indicated a series of public policies to reduce poverty. "The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which includes 17 goals and 169 targets, presents an ambitious vision of sustainable development and integrates its economic, social and environmental dimensions. This new agenda is the expression of the wishes, aspirations and priorities of the international community for the next 15 years. The 2030 Agenda is a transformative agenda, which puts people's equality and dignity at the center and calls for a change in our development style, while respecting the environment". United Nations (2018), p. 7.

In Pope Francis' message to the United Nations General Assembly, acknowledging the efforts of nations, he stressed at the same time the importance of focusing attention on the dignity of the human person, "the simplest and most appropriate measure and indicator of the fulfillment of the new development agenda will be effective, practical and immediate access, for all, to indispensable material and spiritual goods: proper housing, decent and adequately remunerated work, adequate food and drinking water, religious freedom, and more generally freedom of spirit and education. At the same time, these pillars of integral human development have a common foundation, which is the right to life and, more generally, what we might call the right to the existence of human nature itself".  Francis I (2015b).

Pope Francis' letter on the care of the common home, called "Laudato Si", which has social justice and poverty as its central theme, with careful consideration of the ecological problem, underlines the perspective of the Church's social doctrine. This document seeks to "integrate justice into discussions on the environment, to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor". Francis I (2015), n.48. In the Pope's thinking, material poverty is linked to an anthropological poverty translated in terms of social exclusion and environmental pollution.

Proposals in the economic sphere

Some of the institutions that have some relevance in the economic sphere are serious contributors to poverty reduction. For example, the World Economic Forum notes with concern that social exclusion translates into human lives. "About 29,000 children under the age of five die every day, 21 a minute, from surmountable causes; 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate health care; more than 1.6 billion people lack electricity or modern forms of energy; about 12% of the population suffers from chronic hunger. While a third of the planet lives on less than $2 a day, the 85 richest people in the world own more wealth than the poorest half of the world's total population." World Economic Forum (2015), p. 5.


The World Food Program The United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) operates with funds from the world's top 500 companies, according to the Forbes ranking. WFP Director David Beasley proposed to the CEOs of these multinationals that they demonstrate their concern for society by paying for at least one day of world hunger. The WFP provides food to 120 million people who, if they do not receive immediate basic food, would jeopardize their livelihoods. Reaching these people who suffer from acute social neglect is very expensive, since they are in very inaccessible and violent places, hence the daily budget of the World Food Program reaches ninety million dollars a day.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also cooperate with nations by granting them conditional loans, so that public policy makers generate greater social inclusion. Financing infrastructure such as power plants, roads and ports should actually facilitate trade and social development.

Some of these organizations' main objective is to enable nations to invest in infrastructure that they lack. In terms of social development, when high fixed costs are overcome, then the variable cost decreases significantly. For example, once a considerable investment has been made to drill a water well and sufficient piping has been constructed for drinking water to reach homes, then obtaining water is easy for the individual: just turn on the water tap.

On the other hand, when there has been no investment in these high fixed costs and there are no pipelines or few wells, i.e., when infrastructure has not been built to reach households, obtaining water for the individual is very difficult: he has to go to the well, stand in line with the people in the village, carry the water every day to the house, etc.

The institutions that finance these projects count on the fact that some nations do not have sufficient rule of law to guarantee that the funds are used appropriately. Therefore, the regulation of these public funds is sometimes done according to the interests of those who lend the resources and not so much according to the interests of those who receive and administer them. The social doctrine of the Church has denounced this form of social oppression, since it sometimes involves "systematic campaigns against the birth rate, which, on the basis of a distorted conception of the demographic problem and in a climate of absolute lack of respect for the freedom of decision of the persons concerned, frequently subject them to intolerable pressures... to make them submit to this new form of oppression...". John Paul II (1991), n. 39.

In addition, in many cases the resources are not sufficient to trigger the social development and the most critical of these institutions claim that it is precisely the loans to less developed nations that keep them in this situation of poverty. Moyo also claims that these institutions benefit from this poverty to ensure their own existence. "There is simply pressure to lend. The World Bank employs 10,000 people, the International Monetary Fund over 2,500; you can add another 5,000 people from the other UN agencies; plus the employees of at least 25,000 registered NGOs, private charities and an army of government aid agencies: taken together they employ 500,000 people, which is equivalent to the population of Swaziland. Sometimes they give loans, sometimes they give grants, but they are all in the welfare business." Moyo, D. (2009), p. 54.

In any case, the economic sphere, with its capacity for measurement and analysis, provides an important approach to the problem of poverty. The World Bank has established that those who earn less than two dollars a day live in extreme poverty. This economic measure allows us to observe that the population in extreme poverty has been decreasing over time.

The decline in poverty is mainly due to the actions of governments such as China's and India's that have enabled more than three hundred million people to earn more than two dollars a day in a little less than a decade. In China, "in the 20 years following 1981, the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty fell from 53% to 8%." Ravallion, M. & Shaoua, C. (2007), p. 2.. Economic development in global terms is not only undeniable, but positive. However, many indicators show a multiplication of well-being that does not always generate anthropological wealth.

"Specifically, multidimensional poverty measurement takes into consideration all dimensions of well-being that may be relevant (including non-material attributes, such as health status and political participation). In contrast, a material poverty index limits its attention to functional failures that relate to material living conditions."

Some academic studies on poverty

Poverty is the result of the combination of a series of elements that have been carefully studied by academia. The Center for International Development at Harvard University has shown that there are some objectives that are considered necessary for the development of nations and that, despite having achieved them, have not produced the expected development. Rodrik, D. (2007), p. 23.. These include for example urbanization, education, technology, declining demographics, etc.

The level of education in the world, measured by hours of schooling, has increased, but this increase has not translated into expected development.

Likewise, the level of urbanization of the countries has increased, but the growth of cities and investment in non-agricultural projects has not brought the desired social development.

Studies on poverty and inequality allow us to understand that the complexity of this problem lies in the fact that it is a circular dilemma. Less developed peoples are poor because they lack education and because they are less urban than richer peoples. But a people is poor because it is uneducated and because it is uneducated it is poor. In the same way a village is poor because it is very rural and because it is very rural it is poor. Cf. Hausmann, R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 44.

If the problem is considered from the perspective of trade, poor countries are poor because they produce few things and all the things they produce are also produced by rich countries. On the other hand, rich countries are rich because they produce many things and also produce things that are not produced anywhere else. Hausmann, R. & Klinger, B. (2007), p. 3. In short, thanks to its studies on poverty, the academy helps us to understand that poverty is a circular dilemma: there are no watchmakers because there are no watches, but there are no watches because there are no watchmakers.

Poverty in these studies is a paradox; on the one hand, people at the bottom of the pyramid are a great opportunity for development. On the other hand, despite being a source of opportunity; since the poorest people in society always pay more for some services such as health care, financial services, etc., the poor have not been able to develop.

Enriching the base of the pyramid would positively impact the entire economic ecosystem, but this has not been achieved and appears to be very important as "between 2010 and 2025, the child population of sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 130 million. This region will also be the part of the world with the largest number of children under the age of 18 as of 2030. UNICEF (2014). Africa's population is expected to quadruple by 2100. UN (2015) and Kayizzi-Mugerwa's studies suggest that the way to adequately address poverty in Africa is all-inclusive development." Heshmati, A.; Rashidghalam, M. and Nilsson, P. (2019), p. 38.

Numerous studies also seek to establish correlations between the different elements and regions of the planet. For example, one of the least developed regions of India, Bihar, has 99 million inhabitants. The surface area of Bihar is almost 94,000 square kilometers. The paradox of poverty in Bihar is that its territory is very fertile, and it seems easy to achieve good agricultural production in that area. However, it is a very poor area of India. Kaplan, S. D. (2013), p. 86.

When other elements of development are taken into account, it is known that the source of poverty in Bihar is the low level of urbanization in that region of the world. The capital of Bihar, the city of Patna, has just over 1.5 million inhabitants, only one percent of the population lives in a large city. The correlation between low urbanization and poverty is an established fact. The fundamental point to emphasize is that there is little urbanization in Bihar because people have not gone to work in the cities, given the great fertility of the land. This means that, paradoxically, Bihar is so poor because its land is so fertile.

The paradox of poverty has, therefore, its origin in human choices. At its most basic level, man works when nature does not provide him with everything he needs to survive. When nature provides all the basic elements of survival at the minimum effort, human development is more difficult.

Studies on poverty stress that it is a problem that goes beyond the scarcity of economic resources and that the instruments that develop society are political and economic. But they do not do so in the same way, since the economic instruments have achieved a much greater force than the political ones as far as the development of peoples is concerned. Nevertheless, economics is not an exact science, but a social science, which means that in every economic process the intervention of human freedom must be taken into account.

The perspective of the social doctrine of the Church

Poverty is a multiple problem that requires a global understanding of social development. At the same time, it has anthropological consequences for each individual, such as the effort of daily living, which depends on the level of development measured in economic terms.

The complexity of development systems gives rise to areas of poverty even within developed nations and cities. Beyond regions of marked poverty, such as the African continent, these phenomena are present in one way or another in all nations and it has not been possible so far to eradicate them. Those who consider poverty and inequality in the light of the Judeo-Christian tradition draw a number of distinctions.

1-The human good is not measured in terms of wealth and, therefore, the person who behaves justly and leads a good life does not necessarily receive economic goods for his attitude toward others. The ultimate goal of the human community is not wealth, but the common good. However, in fact, the common good requires a minimum of well-being together with respect for private property and for the universal destination of goods. Cf. John Paul II (1991), n. 6.. But poverty is an indisputable human fact that we have not been able to fully overcome. Since 1960 we have spent more than $4.6 trillion to overcome poverty, and not only are many countries still poor, but there are 20 nations that are poorer today than they were in 1960. Christensen, C. M.; Ojomo, E. and Dillon, K. (2019), pp. 13-14.

The consequence of this is that there are people who freely choose to live a life detached from material goods, with an aspiration to a subjective poverty regardless of the amount of goods possessed. This is what the tradition of the Church calls the virtue of poverty. This virtue is important in our day, since renouncing the ostentation of one's goods contributes to social peace, just as living personal sobriety creates a culture of closeness to others.

2-On the other hand, there is a subjective poverty that is an objective evil, and it is necessary to overcome it. A second distinction must be made here, since poverty is not only a material reality. Poverty is a problem that involves ways of acting, expressing oneself and thinking with anthropological and moral consequences. There is poverty translated in terms of violence, drug addiction and alcoholism, which are objective problems and are found in the attitudes of some individuals who live in this way. Cf. John Paul II (1991), n. 57.. These objective problems result in a lack of work and economic development. This is why it is possible to affirm that anthropological poverty gives rise to material poverty, but on the other hand it is not always the other way around, material poverty does not necessarily generate anthropological poverty.

By this I mean to affirm that there are many families of scarce economic resources that live, think and express themselves within a series of values and cultural goods that allow them to live a good life. On the other hand, when moral or anthropological poverty accumulates in a family, for example, contempt for women and children, lack of hygiene and a transcendent sense of life, then it will end up generating economic poverty as well.

3-Thinking poverty as a set of human elements allows us to establish the third distinction, which serves as a frame of reference for our study of poverty. This distinction refers to the existence of an objective material poverty from which it is impossible or very difficult to escape. This poverty is disproportionate, since it means a deprivation of all material goods, it may be the result of an anthropological poverty translated in terms of corruption, but in any case it requires a solution by society. In case of humanitarian emergencies, the poor cannot wait, society has the responsibility to help them.

If, on the other hand, this objective material poverty emerges constantly, it may be that the corruption of public power or of the economic sphere is the anthropological poverty denounced by the Social Doctrine of the Church. "The development of all people leads to a concern to overcome poverty, to establish fair international trade and to be sensitive to the limitations of the law and its applications in some countries, and to a firm attitude to fight corruption." Melé, D. (2015), p. 132.. The most quoted phrase of Pope Francis expresses a disproportion of interests that puts welfare above the person in a graphic way. "It cannot be that it is not news that an elderly person in a street situation dies of cold and that a two-point drop in the stock market is news. That is exclusion". Francis I (2013), n. 53.

In summary, the Christian social thought allows to establish some distinctions: poverty can be understood as a virtue, there is a subjective existential poverty; spiritual, cultural, etc.; that generates material poverty and finally, objective material poverty must be solved immediately if it is urgent, or, if it is not urgent, it must be faced in a series of dimensions that are not only material, since poverty is not only an economic fact but an anthropological reality. Once these nuances have been established, we can consider the way in which the perspective of the Social Doctrine of the Church leads us to think of poverty in human terms.

A way to solve poverty 

The Social Doctrine of the Church illuminates social problems in the light of faith, and this happens in personal terms. Pope Francis teaches that when a family finds that their children are full of problems, they can decide to have one of the spouses work part-time to take better care of them. If this family decides to take that step, it will certainly not be a richer family, because one of the two will earn less, but it will be a better family, since the children will be better cared for and will have more time from one of their parents. If this is reasonable for a family, when in society in general we see so many people with serious problems, alcoholism, violence, drug addiction, addiction to video games, etc., it would also seem reasonable that some people get less economic resources to generate anthropological wealth where there is none.

Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this when he affirmed that "the "city of man" is promoted not only by relationships of rights and duties but, first and foremost, by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion". Benedict XVI (2007), n. 6.

It is in this sense that the Church's social doctrine reminds leaders in the political and economic spheres of society that they have a specific calling to develop society. "In God's designs, every man is called to promote his own progress, because every man's life is a vocation given by God for a specific mission." Paul VI, (1967), p. 15. And therefore we could affirm that part of the task of the entrepreneur is to cultivate the spiritual dimension of his workers and that one of the greatest acts of charity that an entrepreneur can live is to generate jobs. "Entrepreneurial activity, which is a noble vocation aimed at producing wealth and improving the world for everyone, can be a very fruitful way of promoting the region where he sets up his enterprises, especially if he understands that the creation of jobs is an inescapable part of his service to the common good." Francis I (2015), n. 129.

By spiritual dimension we do not mean a necessarily religious dimension, it is not a question of turning the company into a center of evangelization, but of allowing workers to be open to transcendence, to consider life and death, to know that human work is never simply a material act, but that each worker leaves in what is part of his humanity, a trace of his own being. From this it follows that at the basis of the understanding of development is also the meaning of our social action. And there are three different perspectives, the result of a more or less correct understanding of the transcendence of man, insofar as it refers to society.

Providentialism and resignation. 

Some religions would push man to a certain indifference to social problems. Either because it would seem too complex to help others, or because finally for those who believe, poverty is the result of a choice of the divinity and will definitely not be remedied.

This call to resignation in the face of social problems is not consistent with the Christian faith. For centuries the faith of the Church has taught that "nothing in the world occurs without a cause; the natural disposition of things is not irrational, but is ordered to a determined end. (v. 7: Man is born to work, the bird to fly; writes Thomas Aquinas).. The fact that natural things exist in view of an end is the strongest argument to show that the world is governed by divine providence". Elders, L. (2008), p. 67.. As a consequence, each individual has to develop his or her talents in the best possible way.


A second perspective thinks that religion has no relation whatsoever with the social sphere. Its exponents argue that people's religious beliefs are in fact a private fact that has no relation to the public, political or economic sphere. In this sense, each person can believe what he/she decides to believe, as long as he/she complies with legal obligations and has a professional sense in his/her work.

There are already many psychological and psychiatric studies that demonstrate the importance of the person of the people manager. Those who by their profession or trade have the task of training other people know that relationships between people are what allow cohesion and social development. Cfr Armenta, A. (2018).

Aristotle thought that these human relations are governed by politics. And he observed that politics can be understood in two main ways. On the one hand, the art of politics was the task of the different parties that could dialogue and confront their opinions for the better functioning of the polis. On the other hand, politics should seek the common good and that role of politics was not an art but the most essential of the political task. That common good was nothing other than the good of the soul projected into social reality. Therefore, for Aristotle, politics was the art of the possible and belonged to metaphysics. To the study of what is beyond what is observable and measurable by the senses.

In this Aristotelian tradition we find the social thought of Christians, where full freedom of political action is respected and a serious responsibility for the good of the soul, which is never an isolated good, but is part of a being with others, is recalled. "Certainly, man can organize the earth without God, but "after all, without God, he can only organize it against man. Exclusive humanism is an inhuman humanism"". Paul VI (1967), n. 42.

Integral humanism

Finally, it is possible to consider a collaboration between the work of the Creator and the capacities of creatures. In fact, the faith that illuminates social relations allows us to observe human beings in greater depth. This perspective makes it possible to understand that all human beings have equal dignity regardless of their race, sex or social status. And, therefore, it is possible to respect and respect, to collaborate and to know all people.

 But there is also in this perspective a desire to go beyond what is immediately necessary. Whoever has the responsibility for a person will have to work according to the characteristics of his commitment: whoever has a wife or a husband, whoever has a child or a father or a mother to take care of, whoever acquires a responsibility before another person because of a promise or an existential conviction, and so on.

In addition, there will be those who acquire a broader responsibility, with a greater number of people or in situations that require particular attention. This is the case, for example, of a ruler, a surgeon or an entrepreneur. And the understanding of the equal dignity of people, of their possibilities for growth, of the trust they deserve as collaborators will lead the leader of the organization to seek to give more time and talent to the organization he or she represents.

Something similar could be thought of those who start global organizations, where it is not only a group of collaborators with common goals, generally economic, but of people who share the same convictions. The creators of political movements, non-profit organizations and citizen mobilizations may be motivated by interests that go beyond the immediate. The gradualness of social commitment is driven by the faith of Christians, it is a transversal impulse.

The Christian perspective on poverty

In short, social progress is the natural path of perfection for man. But, in fact, this progress is not realized in all men. On some occasions it will not be enough to live as good people, but it will also be necessary to have just social structures. Man "is conditioned by the social structure in which he lives, by the education received and by the environment. These elements can facilitate or hinder his living according to the truth. Decisions, thanks to which a human environment is constituted, can create concrete structures of sin, preventing the full realization of those who are oppressed in various ways by them. To demolish such structures and replace them with more authentic forms of living together is a task that demands courage and patience". John Paul II (1991), n. 38.

And this observation gives rise to a consideration of poverty within these two possibilities: poverty arises when individuals do not practice that which makes them excellent, the virtuous life or the good; on the other hand, poverty is especially relevant when there are no just social structures. Both perspectives give rise to a division in terms of the causes of poverty.

Many people think that the poor are poor because they do not work enough. This is, in their view, a moral problem. And, therefore, in the end, for those who think this way, poverty is sought by the poor.

On the other hand, there are many others who consider that poverty does not have its main source in the virtue of individuals, but in the social conditions in which they exist. It would seem that people with a great capacity for effort are constrained by conditions to do what they can to survive. In this second case, poverty is an unfortunate existential condition.

These perspectives of understanding lead to different social considerations. Those who think that the poor are poor because they have chosen to be so do not consider poverty as their responsibility, because the poor have chosen to live that way. Perhaps it is not a conscious choice, perhaps they lack information, or education, or virtue, but at the end of the road it is personal decisions that lead each person to poverty. Whoever, on the contrary, thinks that the poor are poor because the social structure keeps them poor, wants to do something more to solve that situation, since it is a condition in which the poor are born and cannot free themselves.

 Social structures are not identified with personal convictions. To acquire a conviction it is necessary to think, to consider precisely whether what is lived, expressed or thought in a given society is right, just or best. And to do so means to think again about the meaning of why one says and does what is in fact lived in a given society.

A large proportion of U.S. citizens believe that the poor would cease to be poor if they worked harder. On the other hand, a large proportion of French citizens believe that poverty is the result of the institutional dysfunction of the state. Those who believe that state intervention in monetary, inflationary and fiscal policy are the main causes of poverty may well be right.

The Church's perspective has more to do with people's convictions than with social structures. For the perspective of the Social Doctrine of the Church that we are trying to follow, the way in which we consider poverty is more important than poverty itself. For, in fact, if we think that poverty is the fault of the poor, then we have no responsibility for this acute social problem. On the contrary, if we think that poverty is a social reality resulting from unjust structures, then it is everyone's responsibility to do something to change this human condition.

It should not be forgotten that poverty is an anthropological poverty, not only material. And that this anthropological poverty can be solved by both elements, the goodness of people and the justice of structures. All individuals have a certain anthropological poverty and it is everyone's task to consider the necessary means to change, to do something. It is when this task of social conversion is ignored that we fall into individualism, into indifference.

This is what Pope Francis recently denounced when he affirmed that in our days "the human being in himself is considered as a consumer good, to be used and then thrown away. We have begun a 'throwaway' culture which, moreover, is promoted. It is no longer simply a matter of the phenomenon of exploitation and oppression, but of something new: exclusion affects the very roots of belonging to the society in which one lives, for one is no longer at the bottom, on the periphery, or powerless, but outside it. The excluded are not "exploited" but waste, "leftovers"". Francis I (2013), n. 53.

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Poverty and its solutions

If up to now we have spoken of perspectives of understanding, it should also be pointed out that it is not enough to understand the problems of the world, but it is necessary to put in place the means to solve them. The good life, the morality taught by the Social Doctrine of the Church, is not a deeper understanding of social realities, but a guide for transforming daily life into a life with a transcendent meaning that goes beyond.

It would be appropriate to consider the reasons why poverty has not been solved if technology has advanced so much in recent decades. It is understood that the development of peoples has a method that has been well studied by economic and political science. It is in view of the difficulty that some regions of the earth have to develop that we could consider what Karl Popper observed: "there is no limit to the number of observations of white swans, to prove the theory that all swans are white. But it is enough to observe only one black swan to disprove this theory". Popper, K. (1954), p. 101.

Most of the regions of the earth have started on this path to development, but not all of them have succeeded. This could perhaps mean, to paraphrase Popper, that the observation of development in a large number of nations does not guarantee that it is the only path to follow for development, since in fact there are regions of the earth where it has not worked.

Nor does the fact that a black swan was found among the many white swans that have been observed mean that white swans were not really black swans. For this reason Hausmann argues that it would be wrong to judge development theories wrong simply because some areas of the earth have not achieved progress. "The enormous difference in income between poor and rich countries are an expression of the great difference in accumulated knowledge that nations have been amassing." Hausmann,R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 7.

The Social Doctrine of the Church, for its part, does not condemn economic systems in general terms, but seeks to understand the meaning given to those systems. When asked whether capitalism is the best economic system for human flourishing, John Paul II stated, "If by 'capitalism' is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of enterprise, of the market, of private property and the consequent responsibility for the means of production, of free human creativity in the economic sector, the answer is certainly positive, although perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of 'enterprise economy', 'market economy', or simply 'free economy'. But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom, in the economic sphere, is not framed in a solid juridical context that places it at the service of integral human freedom and considers it as a particular dimension of the same, whose center is ethical and religious, then the answer is absolutely negative". John Paul II, (1991) Centesimus Annus, 42)

For these same reasons, the Church's pastors do not describe an economic system as immoral, nor do they speak out against complex public policies without first defining the meaning of their concern. The documents written by the pontiffs could be equated to a public complaint made by someone with a deep sense of humanity. In simpler words, it would be like a father who notices his child's pain and raises his voice, but logically that father takes his child to a medical specialist, he does not try to cure him personally. Leaving our example behind, the Social Doctrine of the Church does not indicate concrete solutions, it simply has the mission of reminding us that not everything is fine, that we must think about how to overcome social exclusion, without giving specific solutions to problems that are open to opinion.

Theories of social development

Some theories of social development have gone beyond the idea that the accumulation of economic goods is sufficient to develop a region. Robert Solow, for example, recalls that the combination of capital (understood as the elements necessary for production), workers and a certain amount of social knowledge make it possible to achieve development. Solow, R. (1956), p. 67.. Hausmann and Hidalgo; taking Solow's reflection as a basis, propose a novel theory of social development centered on the individual and his or her capacity to interact with others. "The amount of knowledge contained in a society, in any case, does not depend primarily on how much knowledge each individual has. Instead, it depends on the diversity of knowledge among many individuals and on their ability to combine this knowledge, and to make use of it, through complex networks of interaction." Hausmann,R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 15.

First of all, this theory rightly stresses that capital is not a monetary accumulation, but the creation of instruments that facilitate production. The infrastructure that enables transportation, the machinery that facilitates work in the fields, etc. At the same time, remember that a worker does not produce twice as much because he can operate two machines. There is always an important human factor in development that cannot be ignored.

Probably the most complex factor in this theory is that of knowledge. And this is divided into three ways of understanding knowledge. First, knowledge is in the instruments. A cell phone or a tractor contains knowledge of engineering, material analysis, graphic design and structural calculation. In addition, to manufacture those instruments it was necessary to have great knowledge of physics, electrical and mechanical engineering, and so on. But using a cell phone or a tractor does not require so much science, much less to operate them. Therefore the instruments themselves accumulate a lot of knowledge, at least as knowledge is understood under this theory of development.

The solution to poverty is not simply to bring instruments where there are none. It could be assumed that not all people know how to use the tools, but also that these tools need other tools to function. Using a tractor presupposes the existence of gas stations, tractor repair shops, companies that sell tires and spare parts, roads to transport tractors, etc. If there is not a long series of services that allow the tractor to function, it will not be able to generate wealth.

It could therefore be assumed that the instruments require a certain amount of knowledge to be operational. It would therefore suffice to alert new instrument users how to handle the instruments and what are the elements necessary for their proper use. Hausmann recalls that knowledge is to be found in these instructions for the use of the instruments; this is what he calls knowledge as codes.

In fact, nowadays most, if not all, of the codes for the use of the tools commonly available to society are available thanks to the Internet. However, despite the number of available codes, poverty has not been generally overcome.

Hausmann's theory of social development, based on human knowledge, does not assume that poverty is alleviated simply by transferring tools and codes to regions of the planet where there are none. The reason is that when a person has a need, he or she does not act by personally using the tools available, even if it is possible to learn the codes for using those tools. The example that illustrates this reality is that of a person with a toothache, who instead of buying dental instruments and learning on the Internet how to extract a tooth, goes to the dentist. Cfr. Hausmann,R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 15.

For these economists, knowledge is therefore also accumulated in the experts who master the tools and codes. Society, when it has accumulated sufficient experience, achieves development thanks to the interaction between the different experts. Sadly, underdeveloped countries are plunged into poverty not only because they lack tools and codes, but above all because those who manage to become experts in some field of human knowledge, generally get their experience outside the poor regions, and do not return to them.

It is easy to move tools and codes to areas where there is no development, but it is very difficult to move experts to developing regions, because that decision is the fruit of human freedom. The conclusion of this theory is clear, "there is no point in spending our lives learning how to do everything. Since it is difficult to transfer, tacit knowledge is what limits the process of growth and development. In the end, differences in prosperity are related to the amount of tacit knowledge that societies have". Hausmann,R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 16.

The special field of action of believers. For Hausmann an expert is not someone who knows conceptually many things, but one capable of putting into practice that experience accumulated by the dexterity of the instruments and codes that develop society. To be an expert is not to possess a lot of knowledge about reality, but to act in it with ease and to dominate it.

Daniel Goleman (2008) affirms that human beings operate most of the time with an automatic operational intelligence, while only at some moments of the day it is necessary to pay special attention to some specific activity. An expert society is the one that operates habitually with this automatic intelligence, since its members possess the virtue of development in an acquired manner. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would assert that a virtuous society is one that carries out its daily work with good operative habits, and the political common good is the acquisition of the virtues that allow us to live in a good human community.

Joshua Greene, for his part, recognizes that the human brain elaborates its knowledge like a photographic camera that generally captures reality in panoramic mode. However, at certain times, it is possible to adapt the use of the brain as is done in manual mode in a camera to focus attention on a specific subject and record it in a special way. For this psychologist, when the brain operates habitually in accordance with what is best for society, an intelligent society, accustomed to development, is achieved.

"Like the automatic settings of a camera, emotions produce behavior that is generally adaptive, without the need for conscious thought about what to do. And also like the automatic settings of a camera, the design of emotional responses; the way they locate inputs from the environment as ways to behave; they incorporate the lessons of past experience." Greene, J. (2013), pp. 134-135.

If these theories, which have their origin in the functioning of the human brain and in observable social behavior, are correct, then we could affirm that an expert tennis player does not know how to play tennis. Or, that he is an expert at tennis, but that it would be very difficult for him to explain exactly which muscles he must move when he observes the ball approaching him at a given speed. It would also be very difficult to explain the magnitude of force with which he must hit the ball and the inclination of the racket when faced with a given angle situation, etc. The knowledge of the experts is not understanding, but the acquired capacity to act habitually in an excellent way.

For the same reason, it would not be possible to learn to play a sport by listening to the theoretical indications of an expert. To practice a sport in an excellent way, the right way is to train with an expert, to live with him, to move with him. But experts are not easily within the reach of those who are not experts; their motivation is to accompany other experts in the same field in their profession. Pope Francis picks up this profound idea in simple words, when he affirms that in giving alms it is not enough just to toss the coin, but we must touch the hand and look into the eyes. "We need to know how to meet each other. We need to build, create, construct a culture of encounter". Francis I (2013).

Establishing a dialogue between those who are experts and those who are not is a fundamental task of believers, whether they are experts or not. Social interaction is what develops the world, and to achieve it, a simple economic or political logic is not enough; a fully human perspective is always necessary, which is proper to the Social Doctrine of the Church and to those who contemplate the possibility of concrete action before God in this world.

Human interaction and social know-how

The Church's faithful know that they must be ready to be experts in humanity and to collaborate with everyone in building a more humane world. This social interaction is facilitated when each person is engaged in his or her own task in service to others. It is not a matter of everyone doing the same work, but of each person learning to do something different. Cfr. Hausmann,R. & Hidalgo, C. (2013), p. 15.

When Vasco de Quiroga evangelized the indigenous peoples of a region of Michoacán in Mexico, he taught the inhabitants of small villages a specific profession. In his idea, it was important for each village to do something different from the other villages, to facilitate trade, exchange of goods and knowledge and ultimately development. In this way, some towns like Paracho are known for their guitars, others for their hats or their cattle production, etc. Each town developed a different profession that allowed them to trade with other indigenous populations in the area.

In the most rudimentary societies, each person knows how to do many things: hunt animals, fish, make sleds, build houses, make fire, etc. On the other hand, in the most advanced societies, each person knows how to do fewer things: write books, teach a subject, work in construction, etc. The difference is that the inhabitants of more developed societies know how to do fewer things because in rich societies there are more people who know how to do things differently. The knowledge found in people's "being experts" does not mean that each person knows how to do more things, but that each person knows how to do what he or she does differently.

In both rich and poorer societies fruit is sold. But in poor societies a single person plants, harvests, waters, and picks the fruit, then takes it to market and sells it. In the whole process of selling fruit in a rudimentary society there is one person who acts. And he gets to do what he can. In contrast, in a developed society selling fruit involves a group of experts who plant, a different one who packs the fruit for sale, another group of people who transport it to specialized outlets. In developed society selling fruit means the interaction of a large number of experts who do not know how to do what others do, but who know how to do differently. As a consequence, in developed society the efficiency of selling fruit is multiplied by the accumulation of a large "social know-how".

When it is thought that a society can develop by increasing the number of people doing the same things, as for example in a textile manufacturing plant where each employee does the same as the others, development does not occur. Development is achieved when each individual produces a good that is different from the good produced by others, and especially when the individual good adds to the collective good the experience of excellence.

In this way, the greater personal development means at the same time a greater development of the human community. One of the clearest images to achieve this is that of an orchestra, where the excellence of each of the musicians increases the excellence of the orchestra and the renown of the orchestra is a source of security and satisfaction for each of the musicians. Other examples could also be given, the university and its professors, a hospital and its doctors, etc. In reality, it is about that profound definition of the common good that Thomas Aquinas gave centuries ago and that can be summarized as "the order that shines in the community as a result of the establishment in the multitude, of the virtuous life, and the preeminence of the contemplative life". Raffo Magnasco, B. (1949), p. 2026.

The Social Doctrine of the Church invites each individual to develop society as a divine call. But this development is not achieved by instrumental action alone, but only when each person is committed to his or her personal development at the service of the common good. It is not a matter of creating ever more efficient societies, but of fostering spaces of interaction and coexistence with experts; this is the most essentially human perspective of development. Economic poverty, the fruit of moral poverty, has its end point in the sincere encounter between men and women.


Mr. Cristian Mendoza
Doctor of Theology
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

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