Whose fault is this? Simple poverty is nobody’s fault; Williamson points out, as Thomas Sowell has also done, that poverty is the natural state of the human animal. We are all born naked and without resources. Wealth has to be created. And the only governmental effort that affects systemic poverty is dilution. When you concentrate poverty, you trap people in it. When you dilute poverty, you make it easier for people to escape it. The wonderful thing about our form of capitalism is the social mobility it provides. But it would be nice if you could catch the first rung on the ladder up without completely uprooting yourself and moving far away from the rest of your support system.
This was always one of the strengths of the town. People of all socio-economic levels lived in the same environment, worked for and with each other, attended the same schools and belonged to the same churches. The poor were not trapped in poverty. There was always somebody on the way up (and somebody on the way down). It was dynamic. Meanwhile, those who were in desperate straits could be assisted without creating a system that fostered widespread dependency.
When we concentrate poverty in one place, we cut people off from Exchange, which is one of the essentials of human flourishing. In the debate over economics in “Bors to Elayne: on the king’s coins,” Sir Kay says money is the medium of exchange. The availability of money will fix everything. The Archbishop says, rather, that money is a medium of exchange, but it’s not just about money.
“The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air:
‘Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides –
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friends’ shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
make yourself friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What said Heracleitus? – and what is the City’s breath? –
dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.
Money is a medium of exchange.’”
The flip side of this problem is that the rich (or would-be rich) want to create communities for themselves where the poor are excluded, except as day servants. Gated housing developments and sky-high housing costs keep the less affluent out. Within these open-but-not-really communities, schools are excellent (and supported) – but only the best and brightest can go there, because no one else can afford to live within the district. With concentration of like with like comes political power, too, not only over the community, but sometimes over a whole State. The great irony, of course, is that many of these exclusive enclaves of the rich and powerful are populated by progressives, who profess to care for the poor. They do, as long as they don’t have to actually live next door to them.
But concentrating wealth in one place is as perverse as concentrating poverty in one place. The health of the self – and of society – is exchange, not merely of money but of our lives. How many poor people do you actually know? In our race-obsessed society, people bang on about not knowing anybody of a different color, but of what value is it to know lots of people with different-colored faces who all think just like you, work at the same job as you, enjoy the same music as you, vote like you? How does that enrich your life, or theirs? A truly healthy community is made up of all kinds of people, who all know each other – or at least, recognize each other as part of the same world. As Christmas draws closer, we should remember that this is the lesson the spirits had to teach Ebenezer Scrooge, beginning with the Ghost of Jacob Marley.
“But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?" "It is required of every man," the Ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world--oh, woe is me!--and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness! ...I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”
The Church likes to think it gives the lead on these values, but it deludes itself. The Church is primarily experienced in a local congregation, and congregations unconsciously pair like with like. There are white churches and black churches, formal churches and informal churches, loud churches and quiet churches – and there are churches where everybody wears the same kind of clothes, works the same kind of jobs, and has the same hobbies as everyone around them. A congregation can be a terrible echo chamber. Many religious bodies bang on about diversity and missions and “a preferential option for the poor,” but all they come up with is to parachute into a poor community to do a mission project (and then leave, without forming continuing relationships) or to give money to those “doing good” somewhere else. Of all the kinds of congregations, the Town Church probably shows the greatest diversity (the banker’s son and the truck driver’s son attend the same church, and played on the same team in high school), but even there, individuals have to work to know people unlike themselves.
This work is a work of justice, a life lived after a different manner. It is part of what God has called us to do in this world. It isn’t so much “doing good for others,” let alone “fixing” them. And it’s more than employing them or helping them – it’s knowing their names, keeping up with their families, building relationships. Building communities where that happens is the best anti-poverty program.