Does Poverty Have A Cure? An Interview With Father Robert Sirico
I sat down in front of a microphone and an open Skype line recently to engage in a wide ranging discussion with one of the most interesting thinkers in America today, Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute. The main topic was a remarkable new collection of short documentary films called PovertyCure. If you love both freedom and the poor, you’re going to want to watch this film series. Of course, if you’ve listened to any of my other interviews, you already know that we did not remotely stay on just the assigned topic. To listen to the whole thing click here. Some highlights of the hour-long interview have been transcribed below for your convenience.
Jerry Bowyer: “Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute and, I think, one of the most significant thinkers in our country today regarding the relationship between faith (particularly the Christian faith) and economics. The project we’re going to focus on today is PovertyCure, which is a six-part documentary; a film festival; and in many ways more than that, a movement. Father Sirico is here with us to talk about it. Father, thank you so much for joining us.”
Fr. Robert Sirico: “I’m so glad to be with you, Jerry. Thanks for having me.”
Jerry: “Let’s talk a little bit about PovertyCure. Where did this idea come from? What was the original conception of PovertyCure?”
Fr. Sirico: “From the inception of the Acton Institute, which was now 24 years ago, we have always been concerned that economic education–a real understanding of how a market functions–will first and foremost help the most vulnerable, so we’ve done various things over the years to attempt to demonstrate or teach or model that for people. And a number of years ago we were talking about what really helps the poor… Obviously, what helps the poor is access to work. But as we looked into the good intentions of so many people, we see that a lot of them just think that solidarity with poor people means giving them things, and from our understanding of how markets function (and from our understanding of human beings), you really find that human beings themselves are the producers of their own wealth and of their own way out of poverty. What we try to do and what we have now, I think, beautifully accomplished in this DVD series, is show–very often from the mouths of the poor and also experts–how wealth is created, and the nature of people even in the middle of their poverty to be creative and produce more than they consume. That’s what’s called wealth: When you produce more than you consume.”
Jerry: “Otherwise you’re just foraging.”
Fr. Sirico: “Right. You’re foraging, you’re looking for something that somebody else has left behind or you’re waiting–and now we have a whole poverty industry–for somebody to deliver you things. When you’re in a situation where people are bringing you things constantly, your entrepreneurial skills are dulled and your whole culture becomes deadened. Your personhood is disrespected.”
Jerry: “You had a fascinating interview on PovertyCure with an entrepreneur who I believe lives in Ghana and who is a clothing manufacturer. And he said, “All of this free clothing, all of this cast-off secondhand clothing from the United States… I understand you meant it as an act of generosity but we used to be textile producers. We used to be clothing producers and now we’re not because we can’t possibly compete with boxes of cast-offs from the developed world for free.”
Fr. Sirico: “It destroys the indigenous industry. You have to think of what goes into that. It’s not just that some people are making money by selling clothes; it means that all of these workers are supporting families because of the textile industry. And something else that’s intangible: People are learning the habits of trade, of showing up for work on time, of thrift, of delaying gratification — all of that stuff that gets down into the nitty-gritty of a culture and into the nitty-gritty of an economy is absent. What ends up taking the place of that are NGOs or philanthropic organizations, all of whom are there with the very best of intentions. Another thing that was really moving in PovertyCure was the orphanage: This couple went down to Haiti because they just had a real burden, a real concern, and they decided they wanted to adopt a child. They moved down there for a year and a half and as they got to know the culture they realized that the child they were about to adopt had parents. And the more they asked uncomfortable parents, the more they found that the incentive of poor families in Haiti is to give their children to these orphanages, because this way they know they’ll be the special children who will go to the United States and send money back home. The problem, however, is that these folks are not really going to integrate into a family; they really don’t want to be other people’s children when they have their own parents. It’s very conflicting, you know? I think one thing that’s so unique about PovertyCure it is that it will not be a comfortable thing for people to watch. This is not a feel-good kind of film series where you just come away thinking, “Aren’t these wonderful poor people?” There are some really hard questions that are asked about our own philanthropic endeavors.”
Jerry: “That’s right. It’s interesting. I didn’t find PovertyCure uncomfortable to watch. My wife and I watched it together just a couple of nights ago – while you were having your film festival, we were watching PovertyCure at home, and it moved us to tears on numerous occasions.”
Fr. Sirico: “But tears to see the waste of human energy and resources that can go. Also, the inspiration from these people who are so incredibly resilient.”
Jerry: “It was more the latter for us. It was more the inspiration, and it was more – what did Keats say?: “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.” There was a sense that having the truth of the foundational iron laws of human action, of human nature, coming from the mouths of the people that have been used as propaganda tools for the state planners. There was like a Magnicat kind of feel to that. The rich of the world — I’m kind of engaging in free-market class warfare here – ‘the rich’ meaning the political crony capitalists; the elite who are not elite because they produced a good and service, but elite because they can capture power. They are, in fact, oppressing the poor. I mean, we really can say along with James, “Oh, ye rich men, weep and howl.” Not because we’re anti-market and not because we don’t like entrepreneurs, but because there actually has emerged a kind of global class of people who’ve accumulated great amounts of wealth–it might be in the form of a budget–but who have tremendous power over our lives through state coercion. And they’re keeping us down.”
Fr. Sirico: “That’s exactly what we wanted to put our finger on.”
Jerry: “And they’re keeping the poor down. I was angry a lot watching this.”
Fr. Sirico: “Yes. Well, that’s kind of what I mean. And can you imagine if you didn’t have the knowledge of markets that you have, but had a good heart, and just thought the best way is to — we’re not denouncing charity here… Certainly any reasonable person would agree that charity isn’t the normative way in which people rise out of poverty, right? It’s access to work.”
Jerry: “One of your commentators – it’s one of the great quotes in this series – said, “Give me one example of a nation that went from poverty to prosperity through foreign aid. Just show me one. There is none.””
Fr. Sirico: “No. There is none. It’s all through markets; it’s globalization.”
To be continued. Next time, how charity can be selfish.
Article originally published on Forbes.com.