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There's room at the table for the poor if we make it

  • 17 October 2016
  One of the most misused passages of Christian scripture tells us we shall always have the poor with us. That is a statement of fact, often repeated by those who are not poor in order to dismiss any project that involves public expenditure or private generosity to people who are poor.

In practice they mean it is fine that on any day some go hungry while others eat well. They mean it is fine for the rich man to feast extravagantly while outside a beggar craves the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, the dogs all the while feasting on his sores.

They mean there is nothing odd in seeing homeless and hungry people in the streets while trucks go by loaded with food to be thrown out. They mean nothing is out of place in a society where some people buy $5 million homes while others sleep hungry on the streets.

When we do not focus on the good or bad conscience of the observer but on the lives of the people who are poor, we can see that the statement 'We shall always have the poor with us' is not a justification for a modern society that allows people to live in poverty. It is an indictment.

The truth is that there is enough food in the world to feed the world's population, enough wealth in the world to bring food to those in need of it. People are not poor and do not go hungry because there is no food. People do not live in the streets because there are no buildings; a child need not lack clothes unless her mother does not eat today.

They are forced to live in this way because as human beings we lack the attentiveness, the compassion, the wit and the persistence to cooperate in order to feed, house and clothe them. That the poor are always with us is not an unavoidable fact of life but the result of human failure.

One of the reasons why poverty persists is that we regard the relationships that entrench poverty and wealth as outside our control. We turn the decisions we make about the making and keeping of wealth into laws of nature.

When the workings of the economy, which are really shaped by human decisions about priorities, become sacred, it is seen as a moral failure to interfere with the workings of the market. Of course, the