Wealth and Poverty

List of Books Reviewed:

America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today edited by Malcolm Brown

Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska

Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance by Ken-Hou Lin and Megan Tobias Neely

Faith in Markets? Abrahamic Religions and Economics edited by Benedikt Koehler 

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley

Global Poverty: A Theological Guide by Justin Thacker

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera

How the World Became Rich by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin

Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation by Michael Barram

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg

Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies

Remaking One Nation by Nick Timothy

Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition by James Bailey

Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? by Barry Knight

The Populist Temptation by Barry Eichengreen

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem & Barry Asmus

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes

The Wolf at the Door by Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro

Theology for Changing Times edited by Chris Baker & Elaine Graham

Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology edited by Stephen Spencer

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell


Economic History:

Those seeking to deal with issues relating to poverty need to comprehend what has historically produced wealth. With this in mind, we have reviewed two magisterial works that address that question:

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes (published 1998) is a modern day classic (and our review is thus an exception to our normal principle of not reviewing the “classics”).  It considers what makes nations and peoples rich and what makes them poor from an historical perspective, focusing on culture as a key determinant.  All subsequent discussions of this subject have had to interact with it (e.g. it is frequently referred to in Wealth, Poverty and Politics and The Poverty of Nations). It is a “must read” for anyone who wishes seriously to consider the causes of wealth and poverty and, fortunately, its style and approach makes it accessible to all serious readers.

Bourgeois Equality (published 2016) is the final volume in Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy about Bourgeois values.  It is a “must read” for all who wants to broaden their perspective on the causes of our current prosperity and to consider possible solutions to current economic and societal issues in the light of the lessons of the past.  McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She asserts that it was “ideas” not material causes that lay behind the Great Enrichment and defends her thesis by reference to everything from the novels of Jane Austin to nineteenth century post-millennialism.

Those who are seeking a high level overview of the conflicting explanations of wealth creation are likely to be helped by How the World Became Rich (published 2022). This provides an accessible introduction to the competing explanations for sustained economic growth in a mere 240 pages.  Despite its brevity, it draws on recent research from around the world.


Philanthropy and other Voluntary Action:

Many modern approaches to poverty assume that is has to be tackled by state action. However, the effectiveness of this in many cases is open to doubt and the side effects of it are considerable. Hence, it is worth considering the extent to which there is a role for philanthropy and other voluntary action and we have reviewed several books (all secular) which assist in this:

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska (published in 2006) looks at the voluntary provision of social services by Christians in the UK in the nineteenth century and the decline in that provision and of Christianity itself since then.  It has a number of failings but it is engaging and an eye opener in relation to the historic extent of voluntary action. Any discussion of the Welfare State today needs to take account of what Prochaska describes and interact with his arguments.

Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians by Gertrude Himmelfarb is now quite old (published 1991) and it is not an easy read but it is worth reading.  It considers how the Victorian era understood the moral ideas and concepts of poverty and compassion and responded to them both practically and intellectually.  The Victorians are not presented as a solution to today’s problems but those who wish to participate in the debate about the possible solutions would do well to consider the ideas and concepts that Himmelfarb analyses.

The subject of Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies (published 2016) is much narrower. It considers issues associated with UK (and, to a lesser extent, US) philanthropy and its main (though not exclusive) focus is on philanthropy as a means of tackling poverty. It contains a good historical overview of its subject and is worth reading, not least in order to understand the attacks on philanthropy and philanthropists that have, rightly or wrongly, been made over the years. Some of its underlying assumptions are unstated and it needs to be read with care but it is both interesting and important in the context of our overall response to poverty.


Christian Viewpoints:

We have reviewed various books that consider, from different perspectives, aspects of the theology of wealth and poverty, including the appropriate Christian response to poverty. Some of these also consider aspects of economic history or the role of voluntary action and thus their subject matter overlaps with the books listed above.

Faith in Markets: Abrahamic religions and economics  edited by Benedikt Koehler (published 2023) offers a series of studies of the ways in which the Abrahamic faiths have steered adherents towards practices that tend towards markets and sheds light on the ways in which market concepts are embedded in or developed by religious thought. It also examines tensions that arise with the contemporary application or interpretation of religious authorities in these areas.

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (published 2014). This is a collection of essays mainly from a US viewpoint addressing the question how Christians should address poverty. It is not a systematic treatment of this subject and it has deficiencies (including, in some places, an overly polemical style) but it is challenging and interesting and should inspire reflection and further reading.

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg (published 1999) is described by its author as a “biblical theology of material possessions”.   It is not an easy read and its analysis of every single New Testament passage relevant to its subject may leave the reader feeling exhausted but it is an important book that deserves to be read even if this takes time.

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus (published 2013) sets out, in the words of its authors, “to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world”.  It is a flawed book and its defects may well alienate some readers.  Nonetheless, there is enough that is good in the book to make it worth reading.  It contains a robust defence of the free market (including its moral benefits) whilst also stressing the institutional aspects of any solution to poverty.

Global Poverty: A Theological Guide by Justin Thacker (published 2017) seeks to set out a systematic theology of global poverty.  It could be read to provide a contrast with the views expressed by Grudem and Asmus in The Poverty of Nations (which Thacker attacks).  However, whilst the book contains some worthwhile analysis (particularly of the theologies of some Christian aid agencies), its defects are serious and those wishing to consider an economically and theologically sound approach to poverty would be well advised to look elsewhere.

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera (published 2005) addresses a timeless question: why would an omnipotent and benevolent God permit evil? Barrera is both a theologian and an economist and he interacts with Malthus and others, viewing material poverty as a moral evil that God wants us to eradicate through the redistribution and transfers of wealth to the poor. It assumes some prior exposure to metaphysics and is heavy going in parts but it is important in seeking to understand economics in the context of God’s will.

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today edited by Malcolm Brown (published 2014) comprises an four essays which wrestle with the idea that there is a distinctive Anglican social theology.  The essays are of high quality and the introduction and conclusion of the editor are helpful but the book’s intended audience is unclear and there is a danger that it may prove to be too abstract and theologically dense for politicians or those engaged in practical social action and too general for theologians.

Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology edited by Stephen Spencer (published 2017) has a similar subject focus but is very different.  It largely comprises adapted versions of papers presented at a conference in January 2017.  The papers are properly scholarly but lively and the book provides a challenging but good introduction to Anglican Social Theology for those who know relatively little about it.

Theology for Changing Times also looks at the Anglican tradition, in this case relating to public theology.  It comprises essays by twelve different authors and is a piece-meal book which does not describe a systematic Anglican approach to public theology or economic issues.  However, it illustrates the kind of ways in which the Church might continue to engage in public theology and contains a good number of valuable nuggets.

Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation engages in the dialogue regarding questions of justice as they relate to economics. It is aimed at Christians and begins with a discussion of “missional hermeneutics”, the totality of the mission of the Church, before moving on to the author’s view of that mission and its implications.  There is much that is helpful in this but it is flawed and Christians wanting to consider the application of the bible to social and economic problems would be better advised to start elsewhere (e.g. with some of the other books that we have reviewed).

In Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition (published 2010) James Bailey argues that public policy in relation to poverty has placed too little emphasis on assets and savings. He uses concepts in Catholic Social Thought to build his case, including Catholic teaching on ownership, material well-being and the common good.  In parts, many will take issue with some of Bailey’s more ideologically inclined statements and, in parts, the book is US-centric but it is clear and well researched, promotes an under-explored thesis and is a worthwhile read.


Secular viewpoints:

We have reviewed various secular books that look at modern social and economic issues.  These are very different from one another. In particular, some adopt an historical perspective whilst some seek to establish or defend contemporary political programmes. Streets paved with gold:

Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success is a highly engaging and accessible book that offers a blend of the authors’ pioneering original research and broader social science literature. It should be read by anyone who wishes to make informed statement about the often contentious subject of immigration.

Nick Timothy was joint Chief of Staff to British Prime Minister Theresa May in the run up to the 2017 general election and was the main author of the Conservative Party Manifesto for that election. In Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism (published 2019) he seeks to analyse what is currently wrong in the UK and to change the political weather from a right of centre perspective.  Although some may question whether what he suggests will survive Covid-19, it is arguable that it is more relevant now than ever and the book has something to say to those in all parts of the political spectrum.

Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? by Barry Knight (published in 2017) comes at the issue of poverty from a left of centre perspective. It considers the nature of a good society without poverty and the way of building such a society.  It underestimates that transformative power of free enterprise and overestimates that benefits of central government but it refrains from being overtly propagandistic and it is a useful contribution to the discussion on poverty in the UK.

The Wolf at the Door by Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro (published 2020) also comes from a left of centre perspective and is also commendably free of dogma.  The authors suggest that the left has become transfixed by inequality at the expense of focussing on the real issue: economic insecurity.  They aim to identify the various elements of economic insecurity and come up with a feasible agenda for addressing these.  One may challenge the detail of their proposals but this is a constructive and engaging book that has things to say that are worth considering.”

Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance by Ken-Hou Lin and Megan Tobias Neely (published 2020) focusses on exactly the issue that The Wolf at the Door claims is a distraction (i.e. inequality).  The authors lay blame at the door of what they call the “financialization” of the US economy.  They provide a wealth of interesting statistics and raise some interesting points. However, their analysis is most unsatisfactory and by their own admission those who, despite the warnings in The Wolf at the Door, are seeking solutions to modern inequality will need to look elsewhere.”

The Populist Temptation:  Economic Grievance and Political Reaction by Barry Eichengreen (published in 2018) aims to look at Western history in order to identify the economic, social and political circumstances under which populism tends to take hold together with the most effective policies to combat it.  Eichengreen’s view that government action and regulation is the solution is open to challenge but the book contains much that is likely to enhance the reader’s understanding of populism and provides much needed historical perspective.

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell (revised edition published 2016) is overlong and largely repeats things that its author has been saying for many years. However, it is worth reading as a robust and systematic attack on the prevailing liberal approach to the tackling of poverty that is supported by a wealth (but not an overwhelming quantity) of quantitative and qualitative material. It could be read alongside Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few, which presents what might be called the standard left of centre approach (see our reviews relating to “Capitalism”).