By Deacon Steve Barton
Sin is not usually something we talk about openly because it is usually thought of as personal sin that we don’t want to disclose. But sin also exists on a social level that warrants conversation to acknowledge and understand it, and deal with it together. Social sin, like personal sin, denies or defies the will of God and the Gospel.
Using a precise definition from Roger Haight in “Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives,” “sin is a function of human freedom operating with an evil agent in the world that holds human existence in bondage.”
Human existence is social, operating within routine behaviors of groups that form institutional behavior. This ranges from shared uncharitable beliefs and attitudes to unjust policies and practices in organizations and institutions that oppress and sometimes harm people.
One form of social sin is poverty, which involves an evil by depriving people of essential goods in the midst of abundance. This is evident in the disparity of goods between countries and among individuals, even in the prosperous United States.
This deprivation could be described as human bondage because social and economic barriers make it especially difficult to escape poverty. For example, as low-skill jobs decrease and access to job training is restricted, people in poverty get trapped in long-term unemployment.
Generational poverty is another example of this bondage. When people grow up in the poverty of their parents, grandparents, extended family and social group, the deprivation of essential goods becomes an accepted norm — a fixed part of life. People in generational poverty learn to routinely make the decision to buy food rather than pay rent — a situation resulting from inadequate income and unaffordable housing. That leads to housing evictions, a common occurrence for people in generational poverty. Job turnover is another factor of bondage. People in poverty commonly have issues with reliable transportation and child care due to a lack of resources, which can affect job attendance and result in recurring unemployment.
Barriers to overcoming poverty arise from routine and institutional social behavior — direct and indirect. An example of direct behavior is cutting or eliminating funds for social programs such as food and rent assistance and job training. This action increases the barriers and reinforces the bonds of poverty. An example of indirect behavior is advertising job opportunities in a way that people in poverty don’t see, thus restricting access to those jobs.
Social beliefs and structures also form barriers to escaping the bondage of poverty. For example, one commonly shared belief (although not universal) is that people are poor because they are inferior in some way: they are lazy, not smart or bad people (e.g., they all prefer to exploit social welfare rather than work).
The belief that poor people are not smart and lack the ability to learn higher-paying skills raises a barrier to a most important way out of poverty: job training and education to earn higher wages. That leaves people who are poor in the extremely low-wage job market. Another social myth about poverty that negates the perceived need for training and education: poor people can escape poverty if they work harder. Working more hours at minimum wage has a very small impact on income — not enough to break the economic bonds of poverty that force continual choices between rent and food, according to Donna Beegle, author of “See Poverty … Be the Difference.”
Another related myth is that all people, including those in poverty, have the same opportunities for prosperity. The truth is that barriers to employment are higher for people in poverty than for people outside of poverty. Barriers include lack of access to higher education and implicit hiring biases based on middle-class social skills and language. A family faced with decisions between paying rent or buying food does not have money for tuition. Often, they face difficulty and long delays in getting tuition assistance because they don’t have anyone to help them navigate those processes.
Myths that promote social sin are committed by people in and outside of poverty. These beliefs affect how people see and treat each other and can perpetuate poverty.
People outside of poverty lose sight of the existence and effects of poverty: they don’t see it and don’t understand it. Their views of poor people are based on false beliefs that can influence societal behavior, building or reinforcing barriers to escaping poverty. These false beliefs can influence public policy, social programs, legislation and funding which then limits opportunities for training and educating people living in poverty. Those outside of poverty might not be aware that their inaccurate beliefs lead to such barriers and perpetuate social sin operating in the institutionalized behaviors of their group.
People in poverty who accept these myths are more likely to behave in consonance with such beliefs. They may believe they need to work harder, but discover that additional income from multiple jobs helps a little. It does not alleviate the recurring problems of poverty. This can lead people in poverty to believe they are inferior. It may discourage them from working harder, cause them to lose hope and may lead to despair and result in other social problems.
That is how social sin operates in the existence and persistence of poverty: through false beliefs, economic barriers and other means.
(Deacon Barton is a deacon at Holy Family Parish in Davenport.)