Growing Poverty—a Threat to All
WHEN the subject of growing poverty comes up, someone is likely to quote the words of Jesus Christ: “You have the poor always with you.”—John 12:8.
What did Jesus mean? Was he saying that God does not care for the poor? And is their plight hopeless, without remedy?
The world’s poverty problem has grown and become a greater threat even as men have tried to conquer it. On the one hand, the Gross National Product (or national income) of many nations increased in recent years. During the decade of the 1960’s one South American nation increased its Gross National Product by an overall per-person annual average of 3.1 percent. The rich did well. But at the same time the poorest 40 percent of the people had an income decrease. The same pattern was seen in other countries.
Thus, in spite of governmental plans and projects, the statement of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim shows that the threat of poverty has not retreated. He says: “The single most devastating indictment of our current world civilization is the continued existence of stark, pervasive poverty among two-thirds of the world population.”
THE FACE OF POVERTY
The real threat of poverty, however, is told in the lives of the people who daily experience it. It is not an easy thing to define, since a man may be “poor” in one country and yet, with the same possessions elsewhere, be considered fairly well-to-do.
Migrant workers in Western nations have a hard life. In the United States, for instance, a family of Mexican-Americans may follow the crops across the country, working in the fields as each crop ripens. Though they work long hours, the entire family, all together, may not make as much money as a plumber’s apprentice. Some live so close to starvation that to miss a day’s work would mean to go without eating—the threat of poverty is real to them.
Their counterparts in more affluent parts of Europe have come from Asia and Africa as well as other European nations. Many, migrating to work where the “prosperity” is, must settle for jobs cleaning streets and scrubbing latrines. “Home” is among thrown-together dwellings made of cardboard and old automobile parts. There is no electricity or running water.
Yet their situation is advanced when compared with some sections of Africa and Asia. The city poor often live in bamboo huts about the size of an office desk; flies swarm everywhere. And food? Garbage that they can scavenge from scrap piles! Nevertheless, says one report, even these city poor are better off than some village countrymen: “Landless laborers [can] eat better by scavenging in the city than waiting for the limited job opportunities in villages. City garbage [offers] more nutritional value than . . . cheap foods eaten by the poor.”
Believe it or not, even those poor people fare well compared with some. Many millions of persons cannot even afford a shanty slum in which to live. Pavement dwellers use the streets as toilets and the sidewalk for their bedrooms and kitchens.
WHY IS THERE POVERTY?
Who or what is responsible for the growing threat of poverty? The answers run from the view that the poor have only themselves to blame for their condition to the claim that it is beyond their power to change. The truth probably lies in between.
Once, many, many persons were quick to accuse the poor of being lazy. But fewer persons are making such statements. Why? Because inflation is gobbling up the hard-earned cash of more and more people. Now they too appreciate firsthand that there are indeed factors outside an individual’s control that threaten to make him “rich” or “poor.”
It cannot be denied that some people would be better off if they worked harder. A report from one country says that workers “follow their own pace: to work a few hours, then lay down their tools and take a siesta.” “How long, you lazy one, will you keep lying down?” the Bible asks at Proverbs 6:9, and then assures in Pr 6 verse 11: “Your poverty will certainly come.” Of course, in some parts of the earth people have been weakened by hunger, or by diseases like hepatitis, malaria and yellow fever. They cannot work as hard as a stronger person. And the Bible shows that there is also a time for a needed “handful of rest.”—Eccl. 4:6.
However, growing evidence shows that most people are not poor because they are lazy or refuse to work. In the United States, for instance, about twenty-one million persons who work for a living are classified as “poor”; the term “working poor” has recently developed. Migrant workers might be poor, but have they not at least attempted to go where the work is found? A survey found that 75 percent of Calcutta’s pavement dwellers work for a living; but their earnings are so meager as hardly to support them and their families.
Nor is the reason for low wages always lack of education, experience or skill. Often, where a man happens to work is one of the important factors determining his income. Barry Bluestone, a Boston College economist, says: “A janitor at an auto-manufacturing company is paid a living wage. The same job at some textile mills pays only the minimum wage.” Yet there are only so many janitor jobs available at the automobile plants. Having the better wage is frequently a matter of happening to be at the right place at the right time.—Eccl. 9:11.
Poverty begets itself, becoming a growing threat in another way. It produces a culture all its own—often with its own food, language, dress and habits. A person reared in a poor environment often “thinks” that way. Thus, the U.S. black daily newspaper, the Columbus (Georgia) Times, quotes Walter Washington as saying that if “ghettos are to be eliminated we must help the poor eliminate the ghetto of the mind . . . To build a house for a person in the ghetto and not change his value system, the house will become a ghetto.” The poor, accustomed to living in the slums, unless educated otherwise, will often make even a new home a slum.
This “thinking poor,” when coupled with a strong streak of pride, aggravates their circumstances and makes the threat of poverty even more pronounced. Of the people in one destitute region of western Europe, we are told: “They’ll eat nothing but bread and onions all day, and will go into debt up to their ears in order to be able to boast ownership of a car.” The well-to-do may find this thinking hard to understand. Yet, actually, they have often made the growing burden of the poor harder for them to bear. How is that?
LACK OF COMPASSION FOR THE POOR
The well-fed, well-clothed often are unconcerned about the threats facing the poverty-stricken. Sometimes people do not purposely mean to be unkind; but day-by-day living already provides so many demands on their time that it is easy to overlook the destitute.
Social and religious teachings have done little to promote consideration toward the lowly. The teaching of evolution, with its “survival of the fittest” concepts, conditions people to think that certain ones must be pushed aside as “unfit.”
The erroneous religious teaching of predestination has led many to adopt a fatalistic point of view. The clergy have said that the materially prosperous—not those with real spiritual qualities—are the ones that have the blessing of God. If one lacked this world’s goods, the churches have reasoned, such was “the will of God.”
What a contrast with the humane and yet realistic viewpoint of Jesus Christ! Apparently there was considerable poverty among the Jews when Jesus was on earth. He and his apostles took a personal interest in assisting the poor. He taught that in due time the meek would inherit the earth; the threat of poverty would be forever gone.—Matt. 5:5; 6:10; 11:5; 24:20, 21; John 13:29.
“THE POOR ALWAYS WITH YOU”?
Then why did Jesus say: “You have the poor always with you”? It is not because he was unsympathetic toward them. Seen in their proper setting, Jesus’ words show the proper attitude that all godly people should have toward the poor.
Jesus ate a meal in the home of Simon, who lived in the city of Bethany. While there, the following took place: “Mary, therefore, took a pound of perfumed oil, genuine nard, very costly, and she greased the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house became filled with the scent of the perfumed oil. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, who was about to betray him, said: ‘Why was it this perfumed oil was not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor people?’ He said this, though, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief and had the money box and used to carry off the monies put in it. Therefore Jesus said: ‘Let her alone, that she may keep this observance in view of the day of my burial. For you have the poor always with you, but me you will not have always.’”—Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:2-8.
Mary was trying, in her way, to show appreciation for Jesus. There are many obligations in life on which one could spend one’s resources. Some things, such as showing appreciation for the Messiah, Jesus, who was about to die, could best be done then.
Too, it should be remembered that Jesus’ words allude to God’s law given to Israel through Moses. (Deut. 15:11) When that law was correctly applied, no Jew was reduced to extreme destitution from which he could never arise. A family’s property, for instance, could not be taken from them indefinitely. (See Leviticus chapter 25.) Faithful obedience to God’s law prevented many cases of poverty. (Deut. 15:4, 5) Then, too, those who came into poverty were to be dealt with generously by others: “In case some one of your brothers becomes poor among you . . . you must not harden your heart or be closefisted toward your poor brother.”—Deut. 15:7, 8.
Jesus knew that poverty was not going to be immediately wiped out among his followers. His disciples would be found in all social and economic circumstances. (1 Cor. 7:17-24) Poverty was a real problem and they would have to deal with it. The writings of Jesus’ early followers show that they met that challenge.—1 Cor. 16:1, 2; 1 John 3:17, 18.
Jesus’ use of the word “always,” when saying, “You have the poor always with you,” does not have to be taken to mean ‘until time without end.’ “Always” (the Greek word panʹto·te) is conditioned by the circumstances in which it is found. Thus at Luke 15:31 the father of the prodigal son says to his older boy: “Child, you have always been with me.” Obviously the “child” was not with the father before he had any children. So, too, as long as the present corrupt economic systems rule this earth, there would ‘always be poverty.’
Jehovah’s witnesses know that the extremes of there being many poor people and a few rich ones will soon end, in God’s new order. Today, however, they themselves are found in all economic circumstances. Yet they view one another as brothers and sisters, and show loving concern for one another.
Furthermore, those who are poorer know that implementing Biblical principles in their lives will help them to avoid wrong practices—gambling, use of tobacco and narcotics, for instance—which lead to greater impoverishment. They develop a reputation of being industrious, making it easier to find and hold a job. With a hope for the future, they do not become embittered toward God and their fellowman.
Other Christians may not feel that they are directly threatened by poverty at this time. Yet they know that it can pose an indirect threat. How? One may harden oneself to the plight of those who are so afflicted, ignoring the counsel of God’s Word to treat them with consideration. In this way poverty could threaten one’s spiritual life.
Jehovah’s witnesses know that, while the poor must make some changes in their life, another change is equally important. That is the change that those not poor must themselves make in their attitude toward the poverty-stricken. The words of David’s psalm are appropriate: “Happy is anyone acting with consideration toward the lowly one; in the day of calamity Jehovah will provide escape for him.”—Ps. 41:1.
Would you like to live when all threats from poverty are gone? Would you like sound counsel as to how it might be dealt with now? If so, regularly read this magazine.
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What did Jesus mean when he said: “You have the poor always with you”?—John 12:8.