Jesus said, “For you always have the poor with you.” But presidents and would-be presidents like to promise otherwise. Granted, we needn’t have so many of them and they needn’t be so extremely poor, and love of neighbor calls us to relieve their poverty as best we can.
Since Barack Obama first ran for the presidency in 2008, he has stated that our sluggish economy and those suffering from it are his highest concern. But despite unnaturally low interest rates, various government-financed stimuli, and massive healthcare reform, the American economy continues to stumble and sputter. Our unemployment rate is officially 7.6 percent, but the broader employment rate, including the underemployed and those who have given up, is 13.8 percent. But why is it so hard to get this productive country with its enormous natural resources, including a now booming domestic energy sector, into gear for our willing labor force?
Machiavelli observed, “It is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire.” But you don’t have to be the Renaissance teacher of evil to see this. God’s eighth commandment is “You shall not steal.” Ownership is good, so the desire to prosper oneself need not be evil. God also gave us a propensity to work. He commissioned us at the creation to “take dominion over the earth.” Even His call to periodic rest came with the injunction, “six days shall you labor.” Productive work and security in its fruits is essential to healthy human life.
So it should not surprise us to hear that when governments from South Africa to China turned from wealth redistribution to private wealth creation through private property, free markets, and free trade, productivity replaced extreme poverty at stunning rates.
The Economist reports that between 1990 and 2010, global extreme poverty fell by half from 43 percent of total population in developing nations to 21 percent. A billion people crossed the international extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day, beating the United Nations millennial development goals target date by five years.
This change did not result from international aid, which tends to retard economies, but from economic growth. Most of it occurred in China, which has been liberalizing its economy for more than 30 years. China’s economic growth these last 10 years has ranged between 9 percent in 2011 and 14 percent in 2007. (By comparison, the U.S. economy grew 2 percent in those same years.) Between 1980 and 2010, China reduced its extreme poverty from 84 percent to 10 percent of its population. In countries with greater political equality, the benefits of economic expansion were shared more broadly across society.
By global standards, there is no “extreme poverty” in America, but there is poverty. About 22 million Americans—15 percent of the country—are receiving food stamps. It is said that one-in-six Americans are in poverty. But the lesson from abroad, a lesson we used to teach the world, is that the rising tide of freedom-fueled prosperity lifts all boats. But as stunning as this record from developing nations is, it is not stunning enough for the current administration.