stair_stepScott Fina offers a contrasting view to David Brooks recent New York Times editorial about the role of poverty in Haiti’s suffering from its earthquake, recently circulated over FamVin. Below he writes “My point?  Haiti (like Katrina) is indeed much more a story of poverty than a story of natural disaster, as David Brooks states.   But ultimately the plot and context of that story are not about an inferior culture, but systemic injustice.”

FAMVIN invites all viewers to enter into dialog with two contrasting points of view by clicking on the comment button above the graphic and adding your thoughts about” underlying causes and long term solutions” (John Paul II).

The NY Times article about the role of poverty in Haiti’s suffering from its earthquake, recently circulated over FamVin , did indeed give me food for thought.  First, its author, David Brooks, seems unconcerned with structural aspects of poverty and works more from ideology than from objective empirical research.  He pulls out the classic conservative (and corporatist) argument about cultural causes of poverty.

The article is also unapologetically hegemonic—and selective.  It ignores the impact of American support for the brutal Duvalier regimes and its timing (during rapid globalization of economies)—setting up and aggravating deep systemic corruption in Haiti.    The article by Brooks confuses the cultural consequences (frustration, anger, defeatism) of systemic injustice on poor people with causes of poverty.

I addressed this confusion in a recent presentation on systemic change to the Vincentian Family in Los Angeles.  I used the social science debate of the 1980s in the US between William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy) and Charles Murray  (Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980) to make my point.

Murray looked at data on growth of urban poverty in America that coincided with the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration.  Murray ignored the impact of broad, systemic changes (suburbanization, the mobility of capital, the decline of manufacturing employment, tax policy, and the isolation and concentration of the poor in urban neighborhoods) and made unfounded assumptions about public welfare (that it provided a comfortable life that discouraged work).

Murray essentially concluded that the causes of poverty in US cities were cultural: a pervasive anti-work and anti-marriage ethos of dependency among the urban poor.  He also placed great blame on American social welfare programs, i.e., argued that they were key generators of poverty.

Wilson (and similar thinkers) cited the impact of systemic movements in the political economy to argue otherwise.   Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration and every administration to follow (including the Obama Administration) has sided more with the Murray way of thinking.

All this brings me to the experience of Fonkoze in Haiti.

The Vincentian Family has decided to collaborate with Fonkoze—the largest micro-finance organization in Haiti—as a project to honor the 350th anniversary of the deaths of Sts. Vincent and Louise.  Numerous articles published by FamVin have described the remarkable success of Fonkoze.

But if the Haitians suffer “progress-resistant-cultural influences” as Brooks argues, why is micro-finance successful in the country?   Why do the thousands of clients of Fonkoze work so hard (often while caring for children as single parents)—to create enterprises and work toward self-sufficiency?

Brooks also omits the problem of education in his article; only 53% of Haitian adults are literate.   This reminds me  of a recent discussion with Mary Becker, Chair of Fonkoze USA.  Our discussion focused on the literacy education component of Fonkoze—which she also categorized as critical pedagogy—(along the thinking of folks like Paulo Freire).   This means Fonkoze recognizes that poor Haitians need assistance in seeing the structural injustices and the impacts of oppression.

This is raising consciousness among the oppressed poor – not “paternally” imposing “middle class values” as Brooks recommends.   I ask: when has the imposition of “middle class values” by the US or other industrialized nations, ever brought economic justice, prosperity, and democracy to a foreign peoples?

If we accept the argument of David Brooks, then there is an interesting conclusion for the American experience of Hurricane Katrina.  The US had several days warning about the hurricane.   The hurricane had  no impact on the central organizational and physical infrastructure of the U.S.  Still over 1,000 people died—essentially because of issues of warning,  evacuation, and lack of response by the local and federal governments.

Most of the 1,000 victims of Katrina were poor.  Following the logic of Brooks, the unnecessary death toll for Katrina can ultimately be blamed on the “progress-resistant” culture of the poor that died in New Orleans and other areas—not on a lack of response by the most powerful and resourceful government in the world.  It seems that this is the predominant conclusion of the American people.  Little action was taken against governmental officials—whom I personally hold responsible for so many deaths.

My point?  Haiti (like Katrina) is indeed much more a story of poverty than a story of natural disaster, as David Brook states.   But ultimately the plot and context of that story are not about an inferior culture, but systemic injustice.

The conclusions of David Brooks—which are probably widely held by Americans (including American Catholics and other Christians)—raise a very important point for members of the Vincentian Family and our undertaking of systemic change—especially for those of us living in industrialized societies.

The findings of the Systemic Change Commission of the Vincentian Family cite in many places the importance of a prophetic perspective.  Indeed, the call to address injustice is stated in the very statutes and constitutions and/or mission statements  of the organizational members of the Vincentian Family.

But if we are to be efficacious in undertaking systemic change,  those of us living in privileged and powerful societies must especially put the prophetic up front—and aim it at ourselves: our governments and their policies, our own uncritical biases in  thinking,  how we run our institutions and businesses, and conduct our investments (where we put our monies).

What good to serve the poor on one hand, while helping (consciously or unconsciously) to sustain (blatant or subtle) unfair systems and structures that oppress on the other? We need our left hand to know thoroughly what our right hand is doing.

Moreover, is it not central to our Vincentian charism that we are co-evangelized by our solidarity with the poor; that our eyes are mutually opened to the love and justice of God in our solidarity with the poor;  and thereby, our consciousness of injustice and oppression should be mutually raised through our solidarity with the poor?


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