Poverty Is Not Oppression

This one’s probably going to be controversial, so let me make clear at the outset that I do care about the poor and oppressed. That said, there is a critical fallacy that appears repeatedly in discussions around poverty seriously inhibits our ability to help the poor, and even puts those who espouse it at risk of committing serious injustices in the name of helping the poor. The fallacy in question is the assumption that poverty is necessarily the result of oppression. This results in a conflation of poverty, which is a lack of material wealth, with suffering oppression, which Webster defines as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power”.

Obviously, poverty can be a result of oppression, no doubt. If Vikings show up to your village, kick down your door, steal your stuff, and burn your house down, you are poor as a direct result of being oppressed by Vikings. In such a case, justice would demand that the Vikings pay you back for what they stole and destroyed.

If, however, I choose to take on a crippling amount of debt so I can spend $300,000 on a Rolls-Royce, and am thus unable to pay my rent, justice wouldn’t demand anything of the person who sold me the Rolls-Royce, no matter how persuasive he was. It was my choice to buy the Rolls, so I am the only one to blame for my resulting poverty.

The crucial difference between these two situations is the presence, or absence, of coercion. In the first example, you don’t want to give the Vikings your stuff but you do it anyway because if you don’t they’ll kill you; it is not, for your part, a voluntary transaction. In buying a car I can’t afford, however, I am engaging in a voluntary, if foolish, transaction. The salesman is not coercing me into buying the car, no matter how persuasive he may be. If I decide not to buy the car, he’s not going to harm me, whereas you would be in a world of hurt if you decided not to let the Vikings take your stuff. The ability to exert force is crucial to the ability to oppress someone. Without the ability to inflict some kind of actual harm on one party, the other party can’t be truly said to be oppressing them.

It’s crucial to keep this distinction in mind if we are going to help poor people in a meaningful way. If someone is poor because he wastes his paycheck on beer and cigarettes, but claims he’s being oppressed by his employer not paying him enough, forcing his employer to pay him more isn’t going to help matters. In fact, forcing the employer to pay more would be unjust to the employer if he’s already paying his employee the agreed-upon wage. This sounds counterintuitive, but it is in keeping with Leviticus 19:15:

You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.

It is not fair to the employer to force him to pay more because one of his employees foolishly wastes his money. If we wanted to help the employee, the right thing to do would not be to force the employer to pay him more, and thus commit the sin of partiality, but rather to teach the employee to manage his money wisely, i.e. stop wasting it on booze and cigarettes.

Oppression is a common scapegoat for people’s economic woes and, while it can be legitimately cited as cause in some cases, we must not automatically assume that someone is being oppressed because they are poor. Poverty and oppression are two different things, and it is crucial that we remember this.

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