Follow King’s advice: Grapple with underlying causes of poverty

This commentary by Fr. Justin Mathews, RS Executive Director, originally appeared in The Kansas City Star on January 21, 2019.

From a Birmingham jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter on scraps of newsprint to so-called “moderate” white clergy.

While Dr. King languished in a jail cell for his convictions these clergy published an article in which they agreed with the cause of civil rights and economic inclusion for African Americans but were hostile to Dr. King’s timing and tactics. Dr. King responded saying, “I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” The key difference between the solution of these men and Dr. King’s was their different understanding of the roots of the problem.

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Dr. King’s insight is worth meditating on as our city is still talking of solutions to domestic poverty, racism, housing affordability, etc. 

It’s challenging to move beyond superficial analysis as Dr. King urges us to do. This is especially the case with problems as complex as domestic poverty. After many years of discussing this with others in my role as a nonprofit leader and priest I can say with confidence that most people assume that poverty is ultimately rooted in a lack of material things and laziness. Therefore, if we can give the poor more of the things they need and combat laziness we can solve poverty, right? I believe these are symptoms of poverty, not its underlying causes.

Acts of compassion and charity help the poor to survive today with more dignity and are certainly necessary, however, they never seem to make a big enough dent, move the needle, or offer lasting change. They address symptoms but not the root cause. As we invest to fix the effects of poverty in one area we disinvest in another and the cycle starts again across town. We never seem to route the roots of poverty as we intend.

What Dr. King knew from lived experience of segregation and what I believe having listened to the family stories of hundreds of our neighbors in need is this: domestic poverty has largely grown from the tangled roots of racial discrimination and the scarred soil of economic disinvestment. These are the forces that created the conditions for multigenerational poverty and trauma that we now see in neighborhoods struggling to survive and succeed. There have been enough editorials in the newspapers about the history of streets like Troost Avenue in Kansas City, redlining, and segregation to support my historical analysis.

Without meaningfully addressing these real historical underlying causes of poverty where they still exist, and their many lasting effects on communities, our solutions to poverty will always fall short of our best intentions. So, how do we take Dr. King’s advice and grapple with these underlying causes?

First, invest significant community assets in developing new local social ventures. We must invest in emerging models that push the bounds of business returns towards social dividends and pull the nonprofit heart strings towards entrepreneurship and self-sustainability. Businesses, nonprofits, and neighborhoods should work to establish win-win hybrid solutions for our community by proliferating the number of social ventures that bring together the best of business, faith, and philanthropy to benefit all. This is urgent— especially where needed redevelopment threatens to displace or exclude the most vulnerable and longtime residents. The market is an amoral force. It takes moral men and women to bend the market to moral aims that benefit all.

Second, counteract community disinvestment with many small acts of sacrificial personal investment. While we can’t always influence those who do not share our perspective on poverty we can counteract community disinvestment with our own intentionality and sacrifices. Dr. King knew that solving the underlying causes of domestic poverty would take even greater personal sacrifice from all Americans than did the fight for civil rights. This was the genesis of the “Poor People’s Campaign” set to launch but then halted by his assassination. We take up this work again and live in solidarity with the poor in our community by investing in the people in our own neighborhoods, trying to forgive and remain in relationship with a difficult neighbor, seeking to understand the family stories and perspectives of new and different neighbors, sharing generously even when our resources are scarce, and so on.

Third, seek out “creative tension” that can awaken a moral conscience. We can quite easily live in neighborhoods, attend schools, walk in social circles where everyone is just like us. We are no longer segregated by law but by choice and by economics. In order to participate in real solutions that benefit the entire community, there has to be tension, honest conversation, an understanding of the right root causes of the problem of poverty. The challenges of gentrification and affordability are very present moral, political, spiritual, and economic dilemmas in our city, but they also present opportunities to get creative, take direct action, and seek new solutions that awaken our moral conscience. These conflicts are our golden opportunity to foster what Dr. King called “creative tension” that can stir us from “do-nothing-ism” and “lukewarm-ism” to reconciliation.

In order to solve the problem of domestic poverty we have to rightly analyze its underlying causes so that we can support meaningful solutions. We don’t just need economic development, but do-no-harm development strategies. We don’t just need charitable work but a personal commitment to see each other charitably, as family. I believe now is the time to grapple with the real underlying issues of poverty, growing new solutions from the roots up, not the symptoms down so that all may prosper.