‘You have the poor with you always’?

No matter how rich a country grows, no matter how fast the economy grows, somehow the problem of poverty does not seem to disappear.

Nov 17, 2018

By Anil Netto
No matter how rich a country grows, no matter how fast the economy grows, somehow the problem of poverty does not seem to disappear.

Part of this is due to human and corporate greed and the diversion of public funds and assets often serve private interests. This happens the world over.

In our present generation, the diversion of the Commons into the hands of corporate predators has also resulted in ecological destruction — in the quest for more and more profits.

Not only that, the taxation system is skewed in favour of the wealthy — think of falling rates for corporate tax and personal income tax for the wealthy in many countries. Think of the tax incentives and other concessions often given to large companies. Systemic greed not only rewards the wealthy with extraordinary riches, it deprives the poor of essential services.

What happens then? Inevitably, because of falling tax revenue, many governments do not have much left over to finance essential social services like education, healthcare and aid to vulnerable groups. So we have people having to wait for weeks, if not months, to see a specialist in a public hospital. Or there could be a shortage of funds to build more much-needed public hospitals, public schools and low-income housing.

Meanwhile, workers have to struggle with a minimum monthly wage of RM1,100 today. This is not much higher than the minimum RM900 that trade unions were asking for 20 years ago, in 1998. At that time, it was felt that even RM900 was not sufficient and, perhaps, RM1,200 would be fairer.

If RM900 back then was insufficient for a family of five to survive, now we have the Khazanah Research Institute saying that even RM2,000 today would leave a household with little left over – if at all.

In fact, RM900 in 1998 is worth about RM1,300 today while RM1,200 back then would be worth about RM1,800 today. It so happens that RM1,800 is what trade unions and civil society groups are asking for now.

Often, the excuse for the low minimum wage is that workers have to “improve their productivity” before they can get higher wages. But Malaysia’s economy (Gross Domestic Product) today is about three time larger than what it was 20 years ago while the minimum wage has increased only marginally. So how did that happen if our workers are not that productive? True, we have Bantuan Sara Hidup handouts for many among the B40, which is a welcome relief.

But clearly that alone is inadequate. A somewhat similar story is happening around the world, more pronounced in those countries with less egalitarian polices and regressive taxation systems.

The systemic greed and avarice — this transfer of public assets, funds, wealth and the Commons to private hands — is hard to curb. And you can see how the gap between the top 5 per cent or top 10 per cent and the rest of the society and the world is growing.

No wonder Jesus said in John 12:8, “8You have the poor with you always...” Is that what he really meant?

Does this mean we should be resigned and do nothing about this systemic problem?

On the contrary, no. As one commentator observed, the phrase “you have the poor with you always” is similar to an exhortation in Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads:

“Of course, there will never cease to be poor people in the country, and that is why I am giving you this command: Always be open handed with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor.”

So we have to reach out to those in need. The same thing should apply at the macro level, whether at the local, national and global level. In fact, the early disciples of Jesus in Acts succeeded in wiping out poverty among their local community, so that there was no one among them who was in need.

The challenge for us today, amidst the greed and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, is to hear the cries of the poor — and the Earth. And then we need to discern and shine a light in our crisis-ridden world by coming with policies to ensure distributive justice and ecological justice.

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