Is poverty violence?

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Mahatma Gandhi

AntiPovertySoldierOn October 17, 1987, just months before his death, Father Joseph Wresinski stood before an audience of more than 100,000 people in Paris and declared that day the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.” During this ceremony at the Trocadéro Human Rights Plaza, a commemorative marble stone was unveiled and inscribed with the words “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

The son of immigrants, Wresinski was born into extreme poverty in an internment camp during World War I in western France. Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1946, he devoted the rest of his life to the global fight against poverty. In 1957, Father Wresinski founded the ATD Fourth World, an international nonprofit committed to the eradication of extreme poverty with members in nearly three dozen nations across Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America.

There is a rather notable quote (among many) by Father Wresinski that, in my estimation, elevates the discussion on poverty to its most appropriate level. In this quote he states, “The violence of contempt and indifference causes chronic poverty, since it inevitably leads to the rejection of one human being by other human beings.” In no uncertain terms, Father Wresinski is proclaiming that poverty is violence.

The idea of poverty as violence has been debated by philosophers for years, and there is considerable disagreement as to the correct answer. The late Newton Garver, American philosopher and peace activist, wrote, “Violence in human affairs in much more closely connected with the idea of violation than with the idea of force. What is fundamental about violence is that a person is violated.”

In responding to a 2014 Oxfam International Report that revealed the 85 richest people in the world possess the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion (roughly half of the world’s population), Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission notes that “There are many obvious ways in which the lives of those wealthy 85 differ from the poorest 3.5 billion, but there is one critical difference that is much harder to see — a difference that should be at the center of the world’s efforts to overcome poverty. It is this: The rich are safe, while the poor are not.”

It is not lost on me that these statistics are primarily meant to reflect the world’s global poor, as Americans living in poverty only represent a little more than one percent of the world’s total poor. The extreme poverty that envelopes nearly half of the world’s population results in the death of one child every four seconds.

Put another way, 21,000 children die each day in the world due to poverty and its related causes such as hunger, malnutrition, lack of clean water, and preventable disease. In fact, the rate at which extreme poverty kills is roughly the same rate at which people were killed during World War II (approximately10 million people each year). In this regard, I am not sure how you can qualify poverty as anything other than violence.

When considering the situation in America, many would suggest that “relative” poverty does not put lives at risk in the same manner that “third world” poverty does. And yet, a 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health demonstrates that poverty directly causes more deaths in America each year than any other single cause, including cancer, heart disease and accidents.

I believe that regardless of its severity or where in the world it occurs, poverty is indeed violence as it violates the rights and dignity of human beings while causing mass death. Why do we continue to tolerate the intolerable scourge of poverty in America and across the globe? Is it not our responsibility as human beings to stand up for the rights, dignity and welfare of our fellow human beings?

As Father Wresinski once noted, “Poverty is the work of mankind, and only mankind can destroy it.”


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.