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Culture Books

Poverty primer

(Krieg Barrie)


Poverty primer

These good reads delve into the real root causes of poverty

Several high school and college economics teachers have asked me what they should read to prepare themselves to teach about poverty questions. Good question: Back in the late 20th century, P.T. Bauer’s Equality, The Third World, and Economic Delusion (Harvard University Press, 1981) and Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path (HarperCollins, 1989) are all I could have recommended. Near century’s end came one more, Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures (YWAM, 1998).

Now, though, our cup runneth over. Here are five worthwhile secular books: Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital (Basic Books, 2000); William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth (MIT Press, 2001) and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2006); Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press, 2007); Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).

Publication of books from an explicitly Christian perspective makes this turnaround even better. Among them are these four: Darrow Miller, Against All Hope: Hope for Africa (Disciple Nations Alliance, 2005) and Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures (IVP, 2012); Udo Middelmann, Christianity Versus Fatalistic Religions in the War Against Poverty (Paternoster, 2007); and Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself (Moody, 2009).

A fifth, Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations (Crossway), came out this year. It explains what we must know to love those truly in need beyond our borders, and lists the values societies must have to prosper. Among them: Belief in a God who will hold all people accountable for their actions. Belief that God approves of character traits related to work and productivity. Respect for truthfulness, private ownership of property, individual responsibility and freedom, the permanency of marriage, economic development, productive work, and saving rather than spending.

If I were teaching a course on international poverty-fighting, the books I’ve noted above would be on my required reading list. A host of other books could also make an optional list; for example, Demons of Poverty by Ted Boers and Tim Stoner (Micah Enterprises, 2012) shows through the experience of Haiti the mistakes well-intentioned folks make and the obstacles to success. Boers notes that the causes of wealth cannot be superimposed on a culture of poverty that includes progress-resistant religion, dysfunctional government, and class-based society. 

I wrote in the last issue about a good, just-published book, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, and I’ll write in the next issue about another, Good News to the Poor. All these welcome works show how Christians are playing a key role in not only anti-poverty action but the debate about poverty. The (London) Guardian recently argued, “Development’s next big debate will be between technocrats and humanists: Technocrats prioritize material progress; humanists focus on political rights.” Christians can appreciate both sides but need to bring in a third dimension, the spiritual.

For the backpack

The favorite course in many college English departments is American Short Stories, which has three student-attracting words: American rather than European, Short rather than Long, and Stories rather than purportedly harder Nonfiction. Conservatives trying to influence college students sometimes forget student tendencies and try to foist upon them long and lugubrious economics texts—so I’m thankful to the American Enterprise Institute, which has recently published 13 short and punchy pocket-sized books on a variety of political, economic, and sociological topics. 

Ones I’ve read and relished: The Constitution, Freedom Feminism (about alternatives to egalitarian feminism), Home Economics (about family structure), From Prophecy to Charity (about poverty-fighting), Mere Environmentalism, Wealth and Justice, Abundant Energy, American Exceptionalism, and Boom and Bust. —M.O.