In his 2015 book, God or Nothing, Robert Cardinal Sarah made an interesting distinction between poverty and destitution. We’re not sure we agree, but it may be something to think about. According to Sarah, most people through history have been “poor,” which he defined as producing enough to provide decently for one’s self and one’s dependents, but nothing more.
|Well, it does.
Today we think of this as “living paycheck to paycheck,” except that “the poor” in former times were somewhat better off. Many other needs that are non-economic were typically met by “the poor” in ways closed off to the rich, e.g., casual socializing throughout the day, temporary difficulties relieved and repaid without even thinking about it (or charging for it), taking care of the neighbor’s kids while the parents are gone for a few hours or even days, and so on — all the sort of things that the rich typically hired people to do and that now the poor must do as well.
Part of what Sarah highlighted as a problem in the modern world is that “the poor” are not able to rely on friends and neighbors to relieve difficulties and solve small problems as they once did. Life is just too complicated for that. “The poor” have become even more isolated than the rich when it comes to social interaction and assistance in small difficulties. As for the big problems of life, where once they caused major difficulties for the poor, they now cause major disasters.
And that’s the smaller part of the problem. The large part is that the definition of poverty has changed.
|Early British socialism
The fact is that as human labor has decreased in value relative to technology in the production process, many of those who in former days would have been regarded as poor are now destitute, utterly dependent on government for everything they have. As a result, the concepts of destitution and poverty have merged.
People who would have been regarded in former days as “poor” are now considered “middle class.” Yes, they live far better than the richest person in former days, and they have unheard of luxuries (that have turned into necessities as life has become more complex), but they still face disaster if the immediate income source is cut off.
Looking into the history of early British socialism, we find the same distinction made by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century philanthropists. Both Sarah and the philanthropists claimed that there has been a confusion between the two.
|Poverty and destitution are not necessarily synonyms
Destitution or pauperism they defined as being without means to sustain life of one’s self and one’s dependents in a manner befitting the demands of human dignity. Poverty they defined as making enough from your labor or land to maintain one’s self and one’s dependents adequately, but with no significant surplus; saving for retirement, but not to purchase luxuries.
This is why the philanthropists and Sarah believed that Jesus’s statement in the Bible that the poor will always be with us makes perfect sense and is not hardhearted. Sarah added that the poor cannot ordinarily remove themselves from society as can the rich, and rely on their friends, neighbors, and the community to live as befits human beings, and that this is among the “virtues of poverty” that the Catholic Church teaches.
A problem developed with the Industrial Revolution, however. As technology replaced land and labor as the predominant input to production, people could no longer maintain themselves through their ownership of land and labor, and poverty became equated with destitution.
|According to this, philanthropy turns people into permanent dependents.
Philanthropists were faced with a difficult choice: whom do you help among the vast new hordes of destitute? Previously the choice was easy. There were three types of destitution:
1) The helpless, e.g., the elderly, infirm, widowed, orphaned, etc.
2) People temporarily out of work. The former had a permanent claim on assistance, while the latter had a claim to a temporary helping hand.
3) The lazy and shiftless who refuse to work or work only when forced to do so. These had no claim to assistance, although in charity they should be given enough to keep them alive, but nothing more. (The reasoning, of course, was that if they wanted more, they could work for it.)
|Kelso: why not make people economically independent?
As labor was displaced from production, distinguishing between 2 and 3 became virtually impossible. The capitalist solution was to relegate everyone to category 3, and to provide the absolute minimum when absolutely necessary and it could be afforded.
The socialist solution was to put everyone in category 1, and make adequate, even comfortable provision for everyone whether or not the surplus exists.
The Just Third Way solution, as Louis Kelso pointed out, is to make it possible to produce with both labor and capital, putting everyone in category 2: entitled to assistance when one’s labor or capital is not sufficient to provide an adequate and secure income.
Thus, instead of a world in which most people are considered incompetent (socialism) or lazy (capitalism), there would be a world in which most people would meet the late eighteenth century definition of poverty: enough income to meet reasonable expenses of life and some of the comforts, with the difference being that the predominant source of that income is capital instead of labor.