Poverty and inequality are in the news once more. It is not just the Anglican Archbishops who are bringing the subject up, but it is also the Pope, in his preaching in the Philippines, as one can read here.
The causes of poverty in the Third World are undoubtedly complex, but all Third World countries share certain characteristics. One that stands out is failure to uphold the rule of law. The elites in places like the Philippines preserve their privileges, fortunes and capacity to generate wealth by bending the rules to suit themselves: the law is not neutral but is used as an instrument of oppression, to preserve the very unjust status quo.
Until the rule of law is respected, then places like the Philippines will continue to be corrupt, inefficient, unfair and unequal. Worst of all, in such countries, poor people will not be able to escape poverty by hard work, as they will find that educational opportunities and employment opportunities closed to them because they do not know the right people, belong to the right ethnic group, or have the money to grease the right palms. Moreover, any property or money they manage to accrue will be vulnerable to confiscation or theft by the lords of misrule and their friends.
The Pope, I am sure, knows all this. After all, he comes from Argentina, one of the world’s most shambolic states: not as bad as the Philippines but only different in degree, not type.
As for poverty in Britain, this has different causes. On the whole, Britain is a country where the poor can work their way out of poverty, which is one reason why Britain is a magnet for thousands of people from elsewhere, who want to come here and earn a living. And who can blame them? In Britain you can expect to find work, and be rewarded for it, and you have legal redress when things go wrong for you. But there are still many poor people in our midst. One cannot analyse why this is so in an article of this length, but there are certain matters one can flag up.
If you are mentally ill, you are likely to be poor. The care of the mentally ill should be high on our agenda. The same goes for those who are intellectually or physically disabled.
If you are alcoholic or dependent on drugs, then you are likely to be poor. This is connected to mental illness, in that your addiction may spring from depression; whichever way, the Church needs to warn people of the dangers of drugs and alcohol. One might add that other affliction, gambling addiction, a traditional curse of the poor. (The Catholic Church hardly ever condemns gambling, as far as I can see.)
If you are a single parent, you are more likely to be poor; marital and family breakdown are a major cause of poverty. Conversely, in countries with strong social cohesion, the family is an effective safety net against the worst effects of poverty.
Finally, we have the poverty that comes with old age. Again, strong family ties can alleviate this.
So, when it comes to poverty and inequality, the Church needs to stress two things above all, or so it seems to me. The first is equality of all before the law. The second is the importance of family life, and the corresponding disvalue of family break-up. Underlying this is the importance of the virtues that keep families together: charity, chastity and temperance. There are of course many other things that can be said in addition, but this surely should be the core message.