English novelist W. Somerset Maugham observed that there is nothing particularly blessed about poverty. He wrote, “Poverty is the surest route to bitterness and resentment.” Maugham’s thought contrasts greatly with the pronouncement of Jesus Christ recorded by St. Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Jesus, of course, was thinking of the Palestinian peasant who earned a subsistent living from the land, strengthened by a hardworking family, faithful to his religious traditions and grateful to God for each of his mercies. Maugham on the other hand witnessed the grinding poverty of urban neighborhoods and rural communities. He saw many persons who were spiritually deprived, economically beholden, educationally wanting, often physically addicted, emotionally confused, relationally deficient, and, most likely, sadly neglected.
In the second reading this coming Sunday, St. James has the same Palestinian peasant in mind when he writes, “Listen my beloved brothers and sisters. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?”
Certainly the poor can be “rich in faith.” The immigrant ancestors of all who are reading this column right now came to this country “rich in faith.” The Irish, Italian, French, Polish, Portuguese and Middle Eastern Catholics who settled in Rhode Island were fortunate enough to bring strong religious convictions, family values and an eager work ethic with them. But the faith bred by hard times in the old country does not always endure here in the promised land.
Twenty-first century poverty in America is not the rustic hardship that bred hardy souls in the past. Poverty in the modern world is a cycle of deprivation and desperation. Unlike the humble but honest livings of the past, modern poverty robs the individual of self-esteem, the family of support and the community of that “social capital” that Pope Benedict XVI highlights in his recent encyclical “Charity in Truth.” By social capital His Holiness means the combined energy, inventiveness and talent found in the human family. When many of our fellow citizens are constrained by unemployment and illiteracy and even by hunger and disease, the whole society suffers. Because of poverty, civilizations’s greatest resource, the human person, is prevented from sharing his intelligence, his gifts and his uniqueness with the world at large. Thus mankind’s social capital is depleted. Poverty makes poorer persons of us all. The elimination of poverty in Rhode Island over the next ten years will improve the living standard of all citizens. Elevating the poor will actually enrich the prosperous.