When considering how to respond to poverty, people usually have an encounter with the “right” thing to do. People might get involved with poverty because it is the “right” thing to do, people may advocate for a poor community politically because it is the “right” thing to do, people may donate money to a particular charitable cause because it’s the “right” thing to do; people may do all sorts of things in response to the challenges of poverty because they are the “right” things to do. Invariably this sense of “right” and “wrong” things to do can lead us to discussing our “moral” obligation to the poor.
And I think that focusing our response to people in poverty as a moral obligation can act as a smokescreen to miss the point entirely. There is something about engaging with other people face-to-face that invites us to consider what should be done from a standpoint of our human obligations. Failure to act in ways that are consistent with our humanity actually undermines our humanity. It is should be difficult to see someone incredibly thirsty and not think about what can be done to provide them with a drink. When we see the sufferings of people we know, we almost intrinsically look for ways attempt to alleviate that suffering even if our investigation reveals that we can do very little.
Working from a standpoint of our human obligations invites considerations of how our response can honor our humanity, not just merely check the box of doing the ethically “correct” thing. Without a doubt, our morals guide our understanding of what it means that we are human; but I think that getting too tied up in a sense of “moral” obligation to the poor actually undermines our ability to offer enduring relationships with those experiencing material lack. We will encounter situations where we have minimal power and influence. Yet we do not say that one must have both power and influence in order to care.