Prosperity and Poverty During the Holidays


Written by Caitlin Endyke

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.
And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.
While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.

– Nelson Mandela

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing last week, many eulogizing the great leader have been talking about freedom.  Freedom for Mandela after being released from Robben Island.  Freedom for the people of South Africa after apartheid.  But the quest for freedom is not just a relic of history. Mandela advocated for a very modern cause too – freedom from poverty.

We looked to Mandela, and leaders like him, to guide us through struggles with injustice throughout the world. Recently, Pope Francis released his papal exhortation that echoes a lot of what Mandela argued for above – a focus on humanity and a world where “dignified work, education, and health care” are a universal right.  Throughout the text, he tells us that consumerism and greed will not lead us to overall well-being.  He identifies the way poor people throughout the world are treated – as outsiders, invisible and unable to fully participate in society. The Pope writes,

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us.

During the holiday season, the social divide between prosperity and poverty becomes especially apparent.  This year, news reports on Black Friday covered the usual sales figures and trampled shoppers, but also highlighted the strikes organized by retail workers who don’t get paid enough to make ends meet.  The toy drives and bell ringers asking for change across town are a constant reminder that that far too many Americans will not have enough to go around this holiday season.  Even the nonprofit sector’s recent Giving Tuesday campaign reinforces the idea that the holidays are about giving back. 

Both Pope Francis and Mandela remind us that holiday giving shouldn’t just be a financial transaction.  Making charitable donations is certainly important as organizations (like ours) approach the end of the year, but we also have to be willing – as individual and organizations – to do acts of justice, feel compassion and break down the barriers that exclude people.

Photo Credits: Alessandro Bianchi/Pool/AFP (L) and Debbie Yazbek/Mandela Foundation/AFP

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