Who Will Help the Poor?

PARIS – With the deepening of the economic crisis and the prospect of another recession looming large on the horizon, growing social inequality has become an increasingly urgent issue. How does one reinforce a sense of solidarity and responsibility within a country? Who will protect the weakest?

As I ponder this issue, I am reminded of a debate that I had more than ten years ago in Berlin with the German theologian Hans Küng and American and Asian participants. The subject was “Globalization and Ethics” – specifically, a comparison of the ways that Europe, the United States and Asia protect the most fragile members of their respective societies.

All of the participants agreed that in Europe the state traditionally filled the role played by private philantropy in the US and by the family in Asia. But we all hastened to add that no model was “pure,” i.e., the family was no longer what it used to be in Asia, the state was playing a bigger role than expected in America, and it was often underperforming in Europe.

Reality has become even more complicated since then: the family’s role continues to decline in Asia; philantropy, despite a few extraordinarily generous individuals, has more than met its limits in America; and, with the possible exception of the Nordic countries, the state in Europe, overburdened by debt, no longer has the means or the will to shoulder new responsibilities.