Inequality Prevents Elimination of Poverty by Undermining Solidarity

By: David Hollenbach

March 2, 2015

Responding to: Violent Extremism, Integral Development, and Catholic Social Thought

Inequality Prevents Elimination of Poverty by Undermining Solidarity

Both the Catholic Church and the World Bank today agree that inequality is a serious obstacle to overcoming poverty. This convergence is a significant development in light of the histories of these two institutions. The Catholic Church has a notably hierarchical structure in its own governance and for most of its long history advocated for non-democratic governance of states. In its much shorter history, the World Bank advocated policies that presumed that economic growth benefiting those at the top would in the long run benefit the poor. Both institutions have now come to the conclusion that inequality impedes their common desire to eliminate extreme poverty and raise all people to a more human standard of living. How has this convergence come about?  

It has become clear to both institutions that sharp inequalities break society apart into fragments whose interaction does real harm to those at the bottom. Inequalities undermine the positive relationship of solidarity among the members of society that is a crucial aspect of the common good. This solidarity and commitment to the common good was called “civic friendship” by Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics). It is the bond that ties citizens of a society together in mutual concern. For example, rightly ordered patriotism links citizens together in mutual loyalty. Their concern for one another arises because they recognize that they share a common fate due to their shared history, geography, and political interaction. Recognition of this shared fate makes them aware that the well-being of each citizen is intertwined with that of the other members. This in turn generates mutual concern among the co-citizens that leads them to support one another’s well-being. In today’s increasingly globalized world, people’s fates are shared across borders, so it is increasingly clear that we need a form of solidarity that is global in scope.
Both within borders and across them, such solidarity is an expression of the love of neighbor to which Christians are called. It strengthens the social interaction that is a key dimension of human well-being. In the words of Pope John Paul II, such solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual” (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38).    

Inequality clearly undermines this solidarity. Inequality makes it likely that the small group at the top will have little stake in what happens to the majority below them, especially to those at the very bottom. When economic activity is as heavily knowledge-based as it is today, those who have the education successfully to navigate the flow of technology and finance will reap benefits in disproportionate ways. Sizable numbers with less education will be left behind with much less, often in the long-term unemployment and poverty that leads to diminishing hope and even despair.

Inequality in both income and wealth undermine efforts to prevent and overcome poverty. Solidarity and commitment to the common good, therefore, require efforts to reduce inequality and overcome such poverty simultaneously.

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