Poverty and inequality have long been concerns of development economics. A social development paradigm with an emphasis on pro-poor growth is replacing the trickle-down industrialization model. Eradicating poverty and rectifying extreme levels of inequality go hand in hand with economic growth. It is true that a broad-based participation of people in productive activities can increase a nation’s total output of goods and services, and promote economic development. However, poverty and inequality are not just economic issues. They are ethical issues as well.
When we see people suffering from materially and psychologically desperate conditions, we are compelled to act. Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Society of Jesus, has spoken about four challenges facing humankind. In his 2008 speech addressing the students of Sophia University, he declared world poverty as a “social challenge,” and called on us to work hard to eradicate it. He referred to the lack of worldwide access to learning opportunities as a “cultural challenge,” and encouraged us to achieve education for all. He also mentioned the protection of the environment as an “ecological challenge,” and encouraged us to live ethically to meet an “ethical challenge.” These four challenges are all linked. The eradication of poverty is supported by equal access to quality education and a fairer society so that everyone who receives education can have more options in their lives and fulfill their aspirations. Universal access to education and a fair society are not just about promoting economic growth. They are about ensuring human dignity. These challenges call upon our sense of ethical responsibility.
Inequality also tests our ethics. Inequality is not just about income gaps. We may not value the same things in life. People and a society may pursue different paths whose values cannot be compared by a simple measure of how much you possess. As Catholic social teaching suggests, we need to have faith in the poor to organize themselves and choose the life they wish.
Still, an extreme income gap in a society and between societies is alarming because it could erode social cohesion—a basic sense of trust between people who do not know each other. A reasonable degree of social cohesion is needed so that a society (and the world) can function, and for people to have the chance to increase their opportunities in life.
Again, education is perhaps one of the most important public policies to address inequality and trust. Education can reproduce an unequal society if it is not offered equally to all. Equal and fair provision of educational services, however, can rectify issues of inequality. Education can also promote bonding of different groups when it draws children of different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. In both cases, a national government plays a critical role, even in this globalized and increasingly borderless world.