If I'd Only Had a Choice

Extreme poverty is better defined as the lack of meaningful choices for basic human rights. With this definition, three necessary attributes must exist if extreme poverty is to end: an individual must be empowered to make choices, they must be equipped to make choices, and the must live in an enabling environment where they can act on those choices.
— Mahbub al Haq

I don’t have time right now. I don’t have any cash on me. Someone else can help them better than I can. Unfortunately, I have caught these thoughts running through my mind as I sit in the comfort of my car at a red light, praying for it to turn green, as a hungry man stands on the corner with a sign pleading “Need Food.” With my car full of $40 worth of gas, I often drive right by, trying to ignore the guilt and the face marked by poverty that remains etched in my mind. Convincing myself that my handouts won’t make any lasting changes in his life, I am able to justify completely ignoring the man standing just inches from my window. How much easier has it become to ignore the 3 billion others I don’t see who are living on less than $2.50 a day? With their poverty disregarded and minimal opportunity for change, many of the world’s poor are left with no choice but to enter into the toxic environments of human trafficking, drop out of school in order to work, or migrate from their homeland to find employment.

Internationally, 61 million primary school age children will not be enrolled in school this year, a number of them trafficked in the global market or working to provide for their families While we ate breakfast this morning, 260,000 individuals in the U.S. alone waited on a street corner for day labor. Had many of these individuals not been plagued by poverty, the outrageously high statistics could decrease significantly. Had parents been able to support their families, children could have stayed in school rather than being forced to work or sold into slavery. Had fathers been given the option to find other jobs, they wouldn’t have to face unfair treatment and harsh working conditions to feed their children. Yet they did not have a choice.

As we continue to fight against public injustices, poverty tends to be the most challenging issue  due to controversial methods of alleviation. However, poverty is not just marked by a dollar amount but by a lack of meaningful opportunities. For the girl forced into sex slavery or the boy without an education, being empowered to maintain a full stomach and means of income may have been the preventative measures that would have kept them safe, healthy, and living with God-given dignity. Though oftentimes people are skeptical of money handouts, myself included, there are other sustainable methods of empowering individuals to rise above poverty.

Many have heard the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; show him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Though charitable donations help to momentarily relieve hunger pains and provide short-term nourishment, the resources are difficult to sustain.  However, as the world’s poor are enabled to earn their own income to feed their families, more children remain in school and continue to reduce inequality and the destructive side effects of poverty, laying a sound base for sustained economic growth. Without their desperation for income, empowered individuals would leave many industries that exhibit unjust practices without supply of workers. Without the workers willing to compromise dignity for pay, human trafficking would decrease, education would increase, and equality and opportunity would be a choice given to all.

As these ideals have yet to be achieved, God’s command in Isaiah 1:17 is one that remains relevant and urgent, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” As we learn to live this command in our daily lives, those suffering under the grip of poverty can be enabled to earn an income by means that preserve their dignity and keep the perpetrators of social injustices from carrying out harm against their brothers and sisters. 

Such stories of hope and victory over poverty have begun to unfold as different individuals and organizations have committed to live out God’s commandments and empower the poor, not just give handouts. Abundio, a man in Oaxaca, Mexico, is one individual who was able to rise above poverty and provide for his family because of one organization’s efforts to equip the rural poor to change their own circumstances. Through Plant With Purpose’s efforts to teach Abundio how to work his own land, he has been able to sustain his family off his own resources that previously seemed unprofitable.

Grateful for the tree nursery he has been able to nurture and make an income off of, Abundio stated, “People used to go to other Mexican states to work as day laborers. Now our families are together, and they are working at home. Before, there was a lot of immigration. Now people are staying.” As Abundio’s family was empowered to rise above poverty, they were also able to avoid being day laborers or immigrants.

Other individuals who have risen above poverty have shared similar stories of avoiding trafficking and receiving an education. Eltruda in Tanzania shared, “We used to live to survive another day. Now, we see the future. We are sending our children to school, and learning things ourselves. We now see the value of education. We are using our own money to save ourselves. There are no loan sharks or government officials to worry about. We have little to lose, but everything to gain.”

Working to alleviate poverty goes straight to the root of public justice. The side effects of poverty, such as trafficking, lack of education, and immigration, can be uprooted before they start by providing individuals and families with the opportunity to rise above poverty. As we strive to preserve and restore the dignity of God’s people, our fervor should be to give families that choice. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

As the generation that is increasingly aware of social injustices and passionate about ending them, this greatness is ours to embody. As we live the gospel and bring God’s justice to the rich and the poor alike, we can start by committing to give others their choice. Whether that manifests through supporting organizations like Plant With Purpose, investing in tutoring the poor in our communities who would otherwise remain uneducated, or dedicating time to ensure equal job opportunities for those lacking the resources, our own simple choice can gift another with the choice to their God-given human rights.

Rylie Shore is a senior Communications and Writing major at Point Loma Nazarene University. Through seeking truth and studying abroad in South Africa, social justice issues grabbed her full attention, collided with her passion for writing, and are currently the foundation of her after-college plans.