June 27th, 2002

I would like to introduce a fellow student of Daniel Quinn. Jim Tull writes:

“The idea that poverty is inevitable has trapped us in stale paradigms. There is a completely different vision we might follow.” 


Shall the Poor Be Always With Us?

Jim Tull 

It is a familiar story. On his final journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus stops in Bethany to eat at the home of Simon, a leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar of expensive ointment; she breaks the jar and pours the ointment on his head. Her gesture invokes the fury of some present. The ointment was worth a year’s wage, they grumble. It could have been sold, and the money given to the poor.

A single line of Jesus’ reply has been scissored out to become a classic apologetic for poverty: “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:3-9).

This statement, arguably one of the most repeated lines of the Gospels, is often invoked by people who care not a wit for anything else Jesus ever said. Although Jesus did not pretend by his remark to be shedding new light on the problem of poverty, we point to this phrase as proof that poverty is inevitable. When we state that “the poor will always be with us,” we are expressing a reality we accept as a given, as unquestioned in Jesus’ day as it is today.

But it isn’t true. Marshall Sahlins, one of today’s most prominent anthropologists, has identified hunter-gatherer tribal peoples who enjoyed–and enjoyed equitably–a kind of wealth that far surpasses in value the benefits we associate with having wealth in our culture. He dubbed these people “the original affluent societies.” (Using this lens, Columbus and other European explorers and colonists did not discover poverty here in the Americas. They created it.)

Yet the belief persists that poverty is inevitable. In fact, this belief is one of those collectively held assumptions that constitute the mythology of our culture and our contemporary global civilization. And it is not an idle myth, but rather a vital one, a powerful and essential means of sustaining the dominant political and economic structures of our society.

As one who has spent the past twenty-five years actively expressing compassion and indignation at the persistence of hunger, homelessness, and poverty in our affluent nation, I find this myth debilitating. It has convinced us that there is no sense in trying to end poverty; that the best we can hope for is to lessen it. And it has blinded us to how poverty, far from being the fate of humanity, is the product of the way we have structured our civilization.

One way we perpetuate the myth of never-ending poverty is by continuing to believe that the history of our culture and civilization is the history of humanity itself. We view those outside our recorded history as destitute, half-human savages. In fact, humans lived as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years before the Agricultural Revolution spawned our civilization and culture. Yet our history and our collectively held and lived mythology reduce the human experience to the last ten thousand years of civilization-building that have occurred since that revolution.

Not only does this erase the vast human experience prior to the current era, but it excludes the experience of humans flourishing in egalitarian societies today. There are still scattered pockets of tribal people who have never known the kind of poverty we take for granted. They are living proof that poverty is a function of culture, not of nature.

Another reason this mythology of poverty is so entrenched is that we don’t want poverty to go away. It is convenient to believe that the poor will always be with us, because we live by an economic system that depends on and generates poverty. In fact, our own employment hinges increasingly on its presence.

I was reminded of this by an experience I had during the years I worked at Amos House, a center in Providence, Rhode Island, that offers meals, shelter, and social services to the poor and homeless. One day, a young man was ejected from the soup kitchen for a rule infraction. He shouted back at me from the curb, “You know, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have a job!”

He was right. The same Industrial Revolution that displaced laborers and the life-sustaining role of small communities (tribes, then villages) also created tremendous marginalization and human need. More recently, automation and cheap foreign labor challenged our economy to find new ways to sustain growth; it responded by creating a burgeoning service industry to take up the slack.

The mounting social problems increased the demand for services. Private and public programs fit the bill nicely–they ease the pain and give the appearance of an effective response without actually solving the problem. (Indeed, the kinds of short-term, palliative interventions provided by such services often allow the problem to worsen over time.)

In a tribal context, humans freely shared the care of others in a mutually supportive network. Today we still feel the need to care for people beyond our immediate family members, but lack the opportunities. At some level, we are like my dog, Pearl: No longer required to hunt instinctively, she continues to play out the hunt in our house and backyard, sometimes in absurdly comical ways. As humans, we have lived 99 percent of our time on earth in tribal structures, compassionately caring for each other. Perhaps we cling to the continuation of poverty because we need a place to express our frustrated inclination toward compassion.

The mutual care that characterized tribal society has been supplanted in our post-tribal world by professional services, functioning within a service system. In this modern sense, service is the attempt to meet needs outside the context of community. Tribal people have no concept of service, just as we do not use the word service to label the care we provide within our families. For individuals with an especially caring disposition, the service system may provide the only outlet beyond one’s own family.

But the professional service system is a poor substitute for the kind of support only a genuine community can give. As author and community activist John McKnight points out, the service system’s network of private and public institutions and agencies is geared to efficiency, and its contact is impersonal, a counterfeit version of the care a community offers. These systems thwart and frustrate compassionate and well-meaning service providers.

Like its precursors of extended family, clan, and village, the nuclear family is growing weaker, increasingly surrendering its support function to professional services. In the very near future, we may all find ourselves supported by service providers alone.

If poverty is not, in fact, inevitable, what can we do to eliminate it? The first and perhaps the most radical task is to recognize the cultural mythology around the inevitability of poverty, and to begin replacing it with an acknowledgment of the earth’s abundance. This strategy is one of learning and relearning. Instead of “the poor will always be with us,” we need to be convinced that “the earth will provide.” The natural order includes cycles of creation and destruction, birth and death, but within them “the earth will provide.” With its abundant and richly diverse community of life, our planet has the capacity to adequately support all its species–us included. No one should languish in the kind of marginal destitution we commonly call poverty.

The second challenge is building community–finding small and more ambitious ways of reintegrating ourselves into small-scale economies of support, founded on trusting relationships. In his novel My Ishmael, Daniel Quinn distinguishes between a tribal economy, founded on the exchange of human energy, and our modern economy, founded on the exchange of products, including service products. In the former, the economy is based on the mutual giving of time and support. In the latter, the economy is product-based, operating on a cycle of making products and getting products. To the extent that we can transfer our faith and reliance from the product system to the communal support system, we contribute to the atrophy (and eventual elimination) of the institutions and political structures of the product system.

The kind of poverty we are familiar with seems inevitable because it is inherent in the culture of our civilization. Eliminating it requires a fundamental break from the way we think and live.

Our allegiances and psychological attachments strongly favor the prevailing way of life. Our default assumption is that the world will evolve toward a “more and bigger” version of what we have today. Yet the capacity to trust the earth and to live by mutual support and the recognition of individual unique gifts lies within us like a recessive gene. For the most part it is dormant; yet should an adjustment call it forth, it is ready to surface.

We see this instinct manifested among some of our society’s disaffected youth. Although they are still partially dependent on the product system, they have chosen to live tribally, preferring the freedom and vitality of life outside the product economy to eking out a living in the usual way. Less dramatic experiments, ranging from intentional rural communities to urban block associations, echo a paradigm that relies on giving and getting support.

For me, one source of hope is the potential for defection within the middle and upper classes. In my facilitation work with materially comfortable members of churches and nonprofit organizations, I find a surprising receptivity to the disturbing message that, judged by the standards of tribal wealth, even our financially well-off are quite poor. People are beginning to see, for example, that a million dollars is not enough to ensure that they won’t spend their last decade in a nursing home (or to pay for it if they do). They are realizing that our contemporary products contest offers us a life that is increasingly accelerated, virtual, alienating, and superficial–as well as ecologically perilous.

As this continues, the rewards of abandoning the game we play become increasingly irresistible. The simple-living trend of the past decade may portend a shift that is deeper and more widespread. Such a shift could provide a catalyst for the cultural break necessary to end poverty.

When we imagine rich people releasing their hold on product wealth and the means of creating it, we may appear to be dreaming. But if we recognize this release as a process of shifting attention to the creation of a different kind of wealth, it becomes a more realistic vision. Were such a process to occur, the marginalized poor would have a better chance of reestablishing access to land and resources. Unfortunately, the prevailing models of development in poor communities and countries are rooted in the products system, which the poor then look to as the only way out. Organizations committed to reducing poverty could emphasize instead strategies that regenerate the self-reliant community life of giving and getting support. Perhaps then we would finally be capable of recreating true societal wealth.

In many ways, the story in Mark’s Gospel is a story of how we view wealth. To those who complained about the waste of a valuable product, Jesus redirected their attention to the communal value behind the woman’s action–her obvious care for him and her anointing of his body for burial. And that, Jesus might remind us, is precisely the point of remembering the story at all.


Reposted from The Other Side Online, © 2002 The Other Side, May-June 2002, Vol. 38, No. 3.

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