What is “systemic” poverty?
Systemic poverty refers to the economic exploitation of people who are poor through laws, policies, practices and systems that perpetuate their impoverished status. We live in a world where not all have equal access to education, transportation, fresh food, financial resources, clean air, water or healthy environments, employment with a living wage, healthcare, benefits, citizenship, and affordable housing. This lack of access creates generational cycles of poverty and a racial wealth gap that are systemic in nature. An individual cannot change their economic and social location easily by just “working harder.” Meanwhile the many, interlocking disadvantages often are compounded by choices to stay near family or a particular location or employment opportunity, or by gender and racial injustice, trauma, violence, immigration status, impacts from climate change and environmental degradation, and other complicating issues.
Why are people poor?
Individuals are economically poor for diverse, complicated, and unique reasons that stem from living in a world in which economic policies and practices trap some people in persistent poverty while enabling others to accumulate wealth. Wealth or profit often accrues on one side of the equation, often precisely because on the other side of the equation laborers are not paid fair wages, given health or safety protections, employed full-time or long-term, offered benefits, or given voice, power or influence.
Why can’t people work themselves out of poverty?
In the United States, social safety nets and government programs to provide food, housing assistance, healthcare, and employment often fail to meet basic needs and do not provide adequate or equitable access to these resources. Poverty is also often compounded by where a person is born and lives– certain geographic regions, communities and neighborhoods cannot easily access resources that could improve their situations. Around the world, international trade deals, government corruption, armed conflict, and climate change exacerbate conditions of poverty. While there is no simple or easy solution, we do know that communities can become safer, happier, and have an increased sense of well-being when they have vision, leadership, and find allies in their quest self-empowered sustainable development.
SUGGESTION: Watch “Pain and Poverty in America”, a five-minute video created by The Poor People’s Campaign that takes a close look at what it means to live with a low income or in poverty in the United States.
How big a problem is poverty, really?
Poverty is a very real and very large hurdle to well-being, safety, and health in our country and our world. In the United States, 1 in 5 children lives in poverty. Nearly half a million Americans do not have a safe home to go to at the end of the day. Further, more than one in seven people in the U.S. lives below the poverty line, an income of $25,750 for a family of four (HHS Poverty Guidelines, 2019). More than 65 million people worldwide have become refugees, displaced from their homes. Globally, the number of people facing hunger increased by roughly 118 million from 2019 to 2020. Nearly 1.2 billion people in developing countries live in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.25 a day. While we often depict this as a “poverty problem,” Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty points out in her book The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence that we actually have a problem of wealth. Unfettered consumerism, savage exploitation of natural resources, wealth accumulation, inequitable distribution of goods, services and labor, climate change, and economic control by the powerful—those are also root causes of poverty and the impoverishment of the environment. Moreover, many of our global partners take a more multi-dimensional view of poverty, one that recognizes that well-being is based on access to social, spiritual and cultural resources and not simply financial ones.
What does our faith demand?
We believe God calls us to work to end poverty and to create communities of well-being. We believe that God created the world and called it good; that the earth belongs to God; that God tasked the first humans with serving and preserving God’s creation; and that the prophets called again and again for God’s people to seek well-being and justice for all people.
We believe Jesus Christ models how we are to live in community and to confront systems of injustice, including poverty. Jesus Christ taught us to care for the vulnerable, to be a good neighbor, and to provide food to the hungry. Christ came to proclaim good news to the poor. Jesus Christ came not to condemn the world, but to save it.
We believe the Holy Spirit inspires, motivates and guides all faithful work to eradicate poverty and build communities of well-being. The early Christians supported sharing things in common for the good of all. Throughout the centuries, Christian hospitality has included providing food and shelter. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come “on earth” as it is in heaven, and we believe the Spirit works in the world to make this so.
We declare that poverty is not a personal problem but a corporate sin and that “a church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only…. offers no acceptable worship to God … Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation.” (PC(USA) Confessions of 1967)
We declare that “We Presbyterians evaluate any economic system not simply on the basis of the material goods and services it provides, but especially on the basis of its human consequences: what it is doing to, with and for people, particularly the most vulnerable among us. In our tradition, economic behavior, like all behavior, must be subject to moral scrutiny. For this reason, the church must speak to the present economic crisis, to the devastation it has brought, and to the hope to which we bear witness: that, in Christ, a more just order is arising.” (“Living Through Economic Crisis,” 219th General Assembly (2010))
We repent that Christians have misunderstood or been misled by biblical passages taken out of context or by theological interpretations that distort the gospel’s original intention. We repent that the church has used scripture to uphold systems that perpetuate oppression and poverty. We do not believe that “the poor will always be with us” indicates poverty is inevitable or God’s will. We do not believe that “blessed are the poor in spirit” indicates it is a blessing to lack economic sufficiency or basic human rights. We do not believe in a prosperity gospel in which God blesses faithful people with economic riches and condemns unfaithful people to poverty.
We advocate for global economic justice through a range of strategies and approaches including racial, gender and environmental justice, care for refugees and immigrants, guaranteed minimum wages and full employment, support for programs that meet the needs of women and children, and welfare reform that neither requires “workfare” nor punishes the poor. In our advocacy, we ensure that the voices of impoverished people enable us to discern and address the root causes of poverty.
How Do We Eradicate Systemic Poverty
Resources and Action Suggestions for Five Spiritual Practices to End Poverty
As disciples of Jesus Christ, Presbyterians use resources and take action in order to engage in multiple components of a holistic effort to eradicate systemic poverty, address its root causes, and build communities of well-being. With God’s help, together we can work to eradicate systemic poverty if we:
Worship: In our worship, prayers and faith life, we incorporate confessional, biblical, theological, and ecclesial understandings of poverty.
Learn: In our Christian education and personal learning, we seek to understand the intersectional, systemic, and root causes of poverty.
Relate: We engage in genuine, humble, mutual and equitable relationships across divisions, social status, and groups as Jesus modeled.
Act: We prioritize listening to, and responding alongside, communities as they identify needs, organize for solutions, and engage in advocacy for change.
Share: Recognizing that all gifts come from God and are to be shared, we share financial, building, time and other resources to create fair access and to right historical harms.
Who do we contact at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to learn more, to invite speakers and to brainstorm further?
While all PMA staff stand ready to assist any Presbyterians, congregations, mid-councils, and networks, these staff are coordinating a staff roundtable on Matthew 25 eradicating systemic poverty: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. PC(USA) programs specifically geared towards addressing root causes of poverty in the last 50+ years: Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (pcusa.org/sdop), and Presbyterian Hunger Program (pcusa.org/hunger)