What is poverty? Or: How unequal should the poor be? image

What is poverty? Or: How unequal should the poor be?

Just before Christmas Andrew Wilson posted a thought experiment from Doug Wilson which provoked, if not quite fury, then a seething response in my lefty soul. But what was it that upset me, given that D Wilson said in his magical world that his proposal ‘leaves the poor undeniably better off’?

The problem for me was that his solution also meant that ‘the divide between the rich and poor will widen’ and dramatically so. Doug argued that a refusal to agree with his solution implied that instead of loving the poor, what really gets the goat was the mere presence and existence of rich people.
I made the sophisticated comment that increasing the amount of inequality in a society was ‘a bad thing’ and so here we are discussing it in a bit more length. There’s no disagreement that there is absolute poverty (with people living on something around $1-2 a day); that somewhere in the region of 2.5 billion people face a daily struggle to get the basic necessities of food, water, clothing and shelter. I’ve seen it first hand and it’s horrible.
There is rather more disagreement on what caused the poverty in the first place and still further disagreement on how it should be dealt with. Yet none of those compare with the rift that is caused by a discussion about relative poverty or in current terminology, income inequality.
In the next year, expect to hear a lot more about income inequality, not least because President Obama just put it in his State of the Union speech and there will be a presidential election where every candidate is at least a millionaire. Inequality was recently a topic of conversation amongst the rich and powerful at Davos and it’s a big part of the beef of those occupying, wherever it is they are now occupying in financial centres all over the western world. For years now everyone has been happy that the rich have been getting richer as long as everyone else does too. Now everyone else isn’t but the rich still are and somehow that doesn’t seem fair any longer.
Inequality in western societies gets the heckles up in other ways too. For example as the UK government changes how benefits work, we can expect to read stories of benefit scroungers with iPhones and flat screen TVs, and stories of hard working families that just can’t quite make the sums add up. But in a country where nobody starves, what is poverty?
Last summer saw London and other places caught up in the consumer riots, but in a consumer society where virtually everyone gets ‘want’ and ‘need’ horribly confused and where personal debt is dangerously high, what is fair anyway?
For Christians there are a number of questions:
In a wealthy society who is the poor? Inequality says something about how we measure and value certain jobs and work, yet often those who do the most important things get paid the least. Just talk to any mother if you disagree with that one.
Is equality a ‘good’ that we should care about? If so, how much equality should there be, and is this what Paul was talking about in 2 Cor 8:13-14?
So having asked a lot of questions without giving any answers, let me finally make my position clear. I believe that not only does the Bible articulate a vision of a society (past, present and future) where absolute poverty is wiped out but that it also paints a compelling portrait of a world where income inequality is at worst irrelevant and at best incomprehensible.
I believe that the customs of Israel, the teachings of Jesus, the values of the early church and the vision of the new heavens and earth all point towards this kind of world.
I believe that in the light of this, the societies Christians should strive for and the policies Christians should support are ones that lead to more and not less equal societies and where the gap between rich and poor is narrow. After all, the best paths are narrow ones.
This is part one of a short series on poverty.

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