Economics, Environment, Justice, Kingdom of God, Pope, Pope Francis, Social Justice

Happy Are the Poor. (Yes. Really.)

Just days after his election the Cardinal-Formerly-Known-As-Bergoglio commented that he made the unprecedented choice of “Francis” for his papal name because he was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, whom he calls “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.”   He then went on further to comment, “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.”  I think that most people can get with the idea of a church that is for the poor; but that the pope would make it a goal to be poor?  Really poor?  Really?

Endless ink is spilt and dollars spent on international social and economic development programs precisely to eliminate the poverty and improve the condition of the poor of the world.  Benedict XVI’s last encyclical Caritas in Veritate makes development its explicit topic.  Jesus may have said, as is written in Luke 6:20, “Happy are the poor”; but in development literature, the poor are not happy.  Countries with low measures of GDP per capita also are likely to face high mortality and morbidity rates, poor measures of effective governance, low educational outcomes, and social instability.  The path to happiness, one would think according to the literature, must be paved with gold, steel, and concrete, following a “no-holds-barred” approach to rapid GDP growth at all costs.  Only then do the poor have a chance to be happy.

Or do they?  According to two alternative studies, the World Happiness Report and the Happy Planet Index, the prevailing understanding and approach to development is shifting—shifting toward what Catholic Social Teaching has called “integral human development.”  Going beyond pure quantitative metrics, these studies seeks a comprehensive view that incorporates qualitative evaluations of well-being for those in each country.  The results of the first of these two studies are not very surprising.  The World Happiness Report uses data collected from sources like the Gallup World Poll and World Values Survey, and in most rankings the usual suspects of happiest nations (Nordics, Northern European, Canada, and the Antipodes) still round out the top 10.  Costa Rica makes a surprising cameo in the echelons of some rankings, but is middling at best in others.

The Happy Planet Index, on the other hand, simplifies its metrics for clarity, even if losing some nuance.  But what it gains is a different and elegant emphasis on the importance of the ecological preservation and sustainability vis-à-vis development.   Using clear, widely accepted measures of data in a new way, one can see surprising results.


The Happy Planet uses the Gallup World Poll Data, much of the same as presented in the World Happiness Report, and then multiplies it by the UN’s Human Development Data on life expectancy.  It then divides that product by the World Wildlife Federation’s “Ecological Footprint” score to yield its measure of gross national happiness.  In the Happy Planet Index the top 10 in descending order are: Costa Rica, Vietnam, Colombia, Belize, El Salvador, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Guatemala.


Where are the “usual suspects” of the North now?  When environmental factors are weighted against the subjective scores of the Gallup Poll and the objective UN data, we are presented with a new perspective on what sustainable development looks like and what happiness is.  One might wonder, what would St. Francis think about this measure?  What does Pope Francis think of it?

Clearly there are still significant obstacles to happiness even in the happiest countries of the Happy Planet Index.  Every one of the nations listed in the top 10 has faced challenges such as political instability, violence, and drug trafficking.  A great many persons live below the UN’s measure for absolute poverty, living on less than $2/day without access to basic human services.  At the same time, their subjective experience of life and welfare is factored into this measure, as are the brutal statistics of life and death; yet these still come out on top.  Why?

It may be that money can’t buy happiness.  In the absence of the distractions and false promises of “more,” people tend to invest in relationships more.  In the World Happiness Report the study found, “At a given level of income, people who cared more about their income were less happy with life overall, with their family life, with their friendships and with their job. Of course people who care more about money also tend to earn more, and this helps to offset the negative effect of materialism. But in this study a person considering high income essential would need twice as much income to be as happy as someone considering high income unimportant.”  Materialism warps values and goals.  Poverty brings the essential elements of integral human development into high relief.  Moreover, the same study found that there are “many other studies linking green spaces to better health, performance, and life satisfaction.”  Poverty and the environment seem to be at the heart of happiness.

At the same time we cannot forget the prophetic work of Gustavo Gutierrez, who reminds us that material poverty is “a scandalous condition.”  We cannot be seduced into idealizing “the Church of the poor” lest it come off as paternalistic towards our brothers and sisters living in so-called developing countries.  We are all living in countries in need of integral human development.  What we ought to seek as a church of the poor is spiritual poverty, “an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood,” and “poverty as a commitment of solidarity and protest.”

The Pope of Peace, Poverty, and the Planet, or P4, said at his mass of installation, “Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!”  We must take the words of Jesus and those of top-tier of the Happy Planet Index seriously.  Happy are the poor.  They experience well-being, objectively live long, healthy lives, and they live in and leave a good earth for their children and their children’s children.

Happy are the poor?  Yes.  Really.

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About Marc Vincent Rugani

is a doctoral student in moral theology and ethics at Catholic University of America. He most recently worked in the religion department at Xavier High School in New York City, teaching courses in theological ethics, Catholic Social Teaching, and inter-religious dialogue. He holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of Notre Dame and volunteered at the Farm of the Child in Trujillo, Honduras. In his spare time he climbs mountains, skis down them, and waxes passionately on economics and ethics.

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