The past twenty-five years have seen an unprecedented reduction in global poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty—i.e. on less than $1.25 per day—has fallen by an astounding 50 percent. There have been widespread improvements in education, health, and living conditions contributing toward poverty alleviation. Seeking to capitalize on this momentum, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are proposing that world leaders commit to completely eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. Many believe this goal is overly optimistic. But the fact that it is even within reach is a truly astounding moment in human history.
What has caused this massive poverty alleviation?
Rapid Economic Growth
Popular American culture might lead us to think that the progress has been due to socially conscious clothing brands, the latest crowdfunding technique, or a social entrepreneur who figured out how to get cellphones to the remotest villages in Africa. In reality, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the reductions in poverty have been due to the spread of one of America’s greatest inventions. Rapid economic growth is based on the expansion of capitalism. Indeed, economists and policymakers believe that further reductions in global poverty will require poor countries to continue to adopt the policies and institutions. These are the same ones that enable the United States to sustain high rates of economic growth and material prosperity. In essence, the goal is to turn Bangladesh into America.
And this should give Christians serious pause.
Let me be clear. This article is not a rant against markets or capitalism in favor of high degrees of government intervention in economic life. Indeed, the track record of the latter in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) is far from stellar. However, it is a clarion call against rampant materialism. This made the selfish pursuit of ever-increasing levels of consumption into a god. This is absolutely devastating to American society.
For example, the United States enjoyed unprecedented economic growth during the post-war era. But this growth has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in mental illness amongst America’s youth. Indeed, between 1950 and 1999, the rate of suicide among people under the age of 24 increased by 137%. Seeking to uncover the root causes of the rising rates of mental illness, a team of experts gathered at Dartmouth Medical School to examine the leading empirical evidence. They were mostly from the field of neuroscience. The team concluded: . . . the human child is “hardwired to connect.”
Failing to Flourish
We are hardwired for other people. Also, for moral meaning and openness to the transcendent. Meeting these basic needs for connection is essential to health and human flourishing. In recent decades we as a society have not been doing a good job of meeting these essential needs. So large and growing numbers of our children are failing to flourish.
And what has caused this breakdown of relationships with other people and with the “transcendent?” Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has explored the causes. He said, “We have become a culture that focuses on material things and less on relationships.” And it is this culture—its values, policies, and institutions—that economists and policymakers are bringing to the world in order to bring human flourishing to poor people!
Unfortunately, American materialism often dominates the approaches our churches use to help poor people as well. For example, our short-term missions teams distribute used clothes, our youth groups deliver Thanksgiving turkeys. Also, our monthly service projects ladle out soup at homeless shelters. Yes, there are times in which giving away material goods can be helpful. But prolonged handouts can create crippling dependencies. Moreover, if this is all we do, we have fallen into the lie of American culture. This is that human beings are basically material in nature. So human flourishing can be achieved through greater consumption of material things.
We are created for something more.
Wired for Relationship
God is inherently a relational being. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost exist in an intimate relationship with one another. As beings made in God’s image, human beings are wired for relationship as well. Specifically, the Bible describes four key relationships for each human being. This includes relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. In this light, poverty alleviation is about walking with materially poor people in such a way that both they and we come closer to experiencing these relationships in the way that God intended.
Unfortunately, purely material approaches to poverty alleviation—whether through unfettered economic growth or through dependency-creating handouts—can undermine the proper functioning of these relationships, doing serious damage to God’s image-bearers. Good intentions are not enough. It is possible to hurt materially poor people in the very process of trying to help them.
Seven Tips for Poverty Alleviation
Space does not permit a complete articulation of all that is entailed in a Christian, counter-cultural approach to poverty alleviation. But here are seven tips:
- Walk humbly with materially poor people as Christ transforms both of you.
- Be willing to learn from materially poor people. The fact that they have fewer financial resources does not imply that they are less spiritual or that they have nothing to teach you. (See 1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
- Start by focusing on the assets and gifts of materially poor people rather than on the resources they appear to be lacking.
- Do not simply provide handouts of material resources to able-bodied people over long periods of time. Ask them to contribute something to their own improvement.
- As much as possible, stop doing things to or for materially poor people. Also, start doing things with them.
- Remember that it’s all about empowering people, not dispensing products.
- Make sure your approach is rooted in and leads back to the local church. The local church is the very embodiment of Jesus Christ. He is the only One who can restore people to proper relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
Finally, realize that the goal is not to turn Bangladesh into America. Both cultures are profoundly broken. The goal is to turn both Bangladesh and America into New Jerusalem. It is in that culture alone that there is restoration for the poor, a group that includes all of us.
 Richard Bluhm, Denis de Crombrugghe, and Adam Szirmai, Poor Trends: The Pace of Poverty Reduction after the Millenium Development Agenda, UNU-MERIT working paper series, IPD WP19, February 2014; “Towards the End of Poverty,” Economist, June 1, 2013; Donald Kraay, “When is Growth Pro-Poor? Evidence from a Panel of Countries,” Journal of Development Economics 80(1), 198-227.
 Commission on Children at Risk, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities (New York, NY: Institute for American Values, 2003), 68.
 Ibid, 6.
 Jean M. Twenge as quoted in Courtney Hutchison, “Today’s Teens More Anxious, Depressed, and Paranoid Than Ever,” ABC News, December 10, 2009.