Poverty in an Affluent Society

Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his ‘being for all’; it makes it our own way of being… The love of God is revealed in responsibility for others.

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 2007

Love of God and love of our neighbour together make up the great commandment taught by Jesus Christ. Our personal search for holiness is forever linked to the wellbeing of our neighbours, and the question of each person’s survival is always connected to the salvation of our society and the planet on which we live.

Inspired by Christ’s love of the poor, and the determination of the early Christian communities to ensure that “within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life” (Deus Caritas Est 20), the Catholic Church has always sought the wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of our society as a fundamental aspect of our mission.

Through the social justice and social service work of Catholic agencies, Dioceses, parishes, religious communities and lay organisations, the Church has worked to put into practice the call to bring good news to the poor. Through this work, and the work of Catholic schools which operate across the full range of socio-economic communities, we are brought into contact with the daily reality of many people in New Zealand’s poorest and most marginalized communities. This has often required us to speak up for social and economic policies which recognise the human dignity of all New Zealanders.

It is ten years since Church leaders and members of many faith traditions joined together in the Hikoi of Hope to urge the government to address social inequalities that had emerged over two decades of economic restructuring. In 1998 the calls were for employment, housing, healthcare, incomes and education.

A decade later, New Zealand is not the same society that produced the Hikoi of Hope. The past ten years have seen a considerable investment in social spending, a period of economic prosperity in which a number of people were able to put behind them the memories of the hardship of the 1980s and 1990s, and now in 2008, some of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world.

However, the indicators are not all good. Low unemployment has not been translated into improved living standards for all New Zealanders, and the benefits of economic growth have not been shared by all. Despite a decade’s social investment, the government’s statistics indicate that living standards have worsened for the poorest New Zealanders.

In particular, we have concerns that people on benefits and low wages have not benefited as much as many higher earning families from increased social spending. While some middle-income New Zealanders are able to make many holiday choices, other families struggle to find any time to spend with each other, as parents juggle several low-paid jobs with childcare responsibilities. While social security “incentives” to assist people into work have benefited some, it remains a cruel exclusion for other families struggling to make ends meet – especially grandparents caring for grandchildren, or people with serious disabilities or illnesses, for whom work is not a realistic path out of poverty.

As price rises for basic necessities such as food, fuel, housing and transport costs are starting to eat into the living standards of many New Zealanders, we need to particularly keep in mind those who were already under economic pressure before our current economic downturn began. Ten years after the Hikoi of Hope is an opportunity to renew our commitment to stand with those who are in need. Following our long tradition of Catholic social teaching, the Church continues to be concerned with people’s material as well as spiritual wellbeing.

There are now, as there always will be in every society, voices asking why inequality matters. God does not create us all exactly the same – the diversity of talent, culture and ethnicities is intended by God. However, our Catholic tradition has long taught that poverty – to be embraced as a voluntary freeing of ourselves from material possessions – becomes an evil when it is forced on people through oppression or disadvantage.
The solutions to poverty are as complex as their causes. Our Catholic tradition does not endorse or embrace any one political platform or package of policies. Instead we are called to be critic and conscience of all proposals for a more fair and just society.

Solutions to poverty require both personal and structural responses. Pope Benedict justly warns us against putting our faith in structural solutions alone, as if the State can replace the love and care of people for each other. But neither can the State abdicate to the community sector – including Churches – responsibility for just social policies. We need to constantly engage at all ends of the spectrum; responding to the immediate needs of those in hardship, and at the same time advocating for fair and just social and economic policies.
In his recent encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict reminds us of our intrinsic interconnectedness with each other. “Our lives are linked with one another, through innumerable interactions we are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.” (Spe Salvi 48)

In New Zealand society in recent decades, we have learned so clearly the truth of this teaching. When a section of our society is allowed to fall into poverty and hardship, everyone is at risk from the symptoms of that economic violence. The diseases that thrive in conditions of poverty threaten the health of everyone; the violence that accompanies economic stress does not confine itself to the poorest suburbs; and the uncertainty of those living with insecure work is exposed in mental illness and suicide rates.

Despite the trappings of affluence, no one really experiences prosperity when some of the members of our human family are suffering. For our society to truly prosper, we all need to embrace the understanding that the advancement of the poorest members of our society is the advancement of our whole society. The goods of the earth were created by God for all of us to share. Let us work to make that a reality.

New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, 2008