When it comes to alleviating poverty, it is the best of times. Never in history have so many people so quickly been taken off the poverty rolls.
Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, a 2011 Brookings Institution publication, summarizes this stunning development. Researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz note that as late as the early 1980s, "more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty." By 2005, they report, that number was cut in half. By 2010, "less than 16 percent remain in poverty, and fewer than 10 percent will likely be poor by 2015."
In other words, the seemingly audacious UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half between 1990 and 2015 was met three years ago.
What's more, apparently no continent is being left behind. In the 1980s, poverty increased in Africa, and, in the 1990s, in Latin America. But, according to Chandy and Gertz, "poverty reduction is currently taking place in all regions of the world." For the first time, the poverty rate of sub-Saharan Africa is below 50 percent. The authors' model predicts that by 2015, poverty will be reduced in 85 of the 119 countries included in their analysis. The sharpest reduction is seen in Asia; given current trends, they predict 430 million people will be taken off the poverty rolls by 2015—a drop of 30 percentage points.
The developments in Asia, in fact, are the reason they say "the bulk of the fall in global poverty can be attributed to the two developing giants, India and China. They alone are responsible for threequarters of the [expected] reduction of the world's poor."
Not large donations, microenterprise programs, or child sponsorship, but rather sheer economic growth, has effected this change. With massive populations, the two nations made a number of interrelated decisions that opened their countries to globalization, which in turn has led to remarkable economic performances, where we've seen GDP growth rates (except for 2009) stay above 6 percent since 2003. The wealth has indeed trickled down to the lowest economic strata of their societies.
Thus the plethora of new and hopeful books: Charles Kenny's Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, Jeffery Sachs's The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, and, for Christian activists, Scott Todd's Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty—among many others.
Though economists debate specifics, it's a moment bursting with hope. But these dramatic developments, ironically, present the church with a few serious challenges.
What these latest findings demonstrate is the church's relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better.
These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history's greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.
Other activists focus on motivation. Both personal experience and national studies have shown that when it comes to poverty reduction, Christians are discouraged. We tend to believe the world is getting worse, and that our little efforts won't make much difference anyway. So some activists tout these poverty reduction numbers, saying, "See, we can make a difference!" Then they encourage us to get involved in our own small way, because if we do, "We can defeat poverty in this generation" or, "The church can end extreme poverty."
But of course, it is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can't. When I asked why, every one of them said, "Original sin." Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist.
Some rightly point to the huge strides made in abolition, prison reform, child labor laws, and so forth due to Christian activism in the 19th century. Take slavery: Indeed, it is much better to live in a time when every nation on the planet has outlawed slavery. But as experts today acknowledge, slavery (defined as people enduring forced labor, including sex) is still endemic worldwide. There are more slaves today (estimates range from 12 million to 27 million) than ever. By contrast, even at the apex of American slavery, the United States counted only 4 million slaves.
So yes, we can indeed improve social conditions in some regards. But the human capacity for sin is relentless and will find ways to subvert even our most stellar progress. As we'll see, however, this is no cause for discouragement—only a realistic picture of what we're up against.
Sometimes our idealism is grounded in what might be called social-improvement math. For Christians, it works like this: "There are nearly 200 million Christians in the United States. If they were able to see that (a) poverty can be defeated, and (b) Jesus calls them to have a heart for the poor, then they could change the political climate. Representatives would have to take this constituency seriously when they started asking for policy changes that would help the poor."
This assumes a number of things that have never materialized in history. We can confidently predict that we will never be able to get 200 million Christians to agree on any priority except, perhaps, that Jesus is Lord. But let's take the best-case scenario: If one could get all 200 million believers to make poverty reduction a top priority (trumping abortion, human rights, and a hundred other causes), there are no uniquely Christian solutions to ending poverty that we all would agree on. What separates Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans is not their concern for the poor but rather their strategies for helping the poor. Political wrangling will be with us always.
But more to the point we began with: When huge poverty reduction strides have been made, it has been due not to every person doing their little part, but to government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions. Doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty.
So if the church in fact cannot defeat poverty, and if the church's efforts make an insignificant dent in macropoverty, how should we then live toward the poor?
The Church's Unique Calling
It would be foolish to stop caring for the poor. We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference. As the article "Cost-Effective Compassion" shows, when it comes to poverty, impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves. But who and how we love can never finally be decided on effectiveness, for otherwise we would neglect all those for whom we can make little practical difference—those in hospice care and nursing homes, those with mental disabilities, and so forth.
In fact, if this becomes our primary motivation—to change the world—we risk sabotaging the uniquely Christian approach to poverty.
What I mean is this: In pragmatic America, we are often enamored of and motivated by pragmatism rather than simple obedience to Jesus. We are too often tempted to justify our existence on this planet by doing something "significant," by "making a difference in the world," so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves. But the Christian message is about a God who judges and loves us in our insignificance—that is, when our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others'. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin. But in Jesus Christ, he has judged and forgiven us through the Cross, and now he uses even our insignificant efforts to witness to his coming work in Jesus Christ.
What is that coming work? Among other things, it is the end of poverty. No,we cannot end poverty, but God can and will. From this perspective we see that our efforts to stem poverty have significance not because they make us feel better, but because they point to Jesus' final antipoverty program.
With this end in view, when we inevitably enter a period in history when poverty gets worse, either globally or locally, we won't get discouraged. We are involved with the poor not because we're going to make a difference, but primarily because we are gladly responding to the call of a gracious God to show forth the Good News—in deeds of justice and mercy, and more importantly, in gospel words—that he will defeat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material.
And then there is this very practical dimension: The church can never match the sweep of national and global initiatives. But if the poor will be with us always, until the Second Coming, it is also true that bureaucratic and impersonal government will be as well. When it comes to caring for people as individuals in their uniqueness, the government is the clumsiest tool imaginable.
Ah, but people—those precious individuals embedded in a unique family and community—they are right in the church's sweet spot. No government can touch what the church can do here.
So while the government makes needed sweeping changes, the church is there to pick up the inevitable pieces of people trampled by government regulations, of people who get left behind, of people whom the government treats as mindless sheep, but whom the church knows have a Shepherd.
Thus the church's most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.
If you're concerned about poverty, these are indeed the best of times. But we mustn't be discouraged if it appears that the church has been left on the sidelines in this historical moment. We still have our irreplaceable calling. It begins with responding to the divine and gracious call of Jesus to follow, and ends with loving the unique people, especially the poor, whom he providentially puts in our midst.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, author most recently of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker), and writes Soulwork, an online column for CT.
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Christianity Today's February cover package includes "Cost-Effective Compassion," which will be available next week.
Previous CT articles about poverty include:
Research: Rich God, Poor God | New studies are examining the relationship between religious attitudes and economic inequality. (November 8, 2011)
Fighting Famine Isn't Enough | Some 2,000 Somalis die of starvation daily. Drought isn't the reason. (November 4, 2011)
Feeding the Poor Through Pay-As-You-Can | A church-based café in New Jersey may be the future for helping people get on their feet. (August 10, 2011)
Christian Microfinance Stays on a Mission | While scandals rock the microfinance industry, Christian nonprofits diversify their efforts to help the poor. (May 27, 2011)
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