Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All

The following is an excerpt from the ELCA Social Statement “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” adopted by the sixth biennial Churchwide Assembly in August of 1999. To read the statement in full, click


For all: especially those living in poverty

[1] “For all” refers to the whole household of God—all people and creation throughout the world. We should assess economic activities in terms of how they affect “all,” especially people living in poverty.

[2] We tend to view economic life by how it affects us personally. The cross of Christ challenges Christians to view this arena through the experience of those of us who are impoverished, suffering, broken, betrayed, left out, without hope. Through those who are “despised” and “held of no account” (Isaiah 53:3) we see the crucified Christ (Matthew 25:31-46), through whom God’s righteousness and justice are revealed power of God’s suffering, self-giving love transforms and challenges the Church to stand with all who are overlooked for the sake of economic progress or greed. Confession of faith ought to flow into acts of justice for the sake of the most vulnerable.

[3] Outrage over the plight of people living in poverty is a theme throughout the Bible. The poor are those who live precariously between subsistence and utter deprivation. It is not poor people themselves who are the problem, but their lack of access to the basic necessities of life. Without such, they cannot maintain their human dignity. Strong themes in Scripture indicate that people are poor because of circumstances that have afflicted them (such as “aliens, orphans, widows”), or because of the greed and unjust practices of those who “trample on the poor” (Amos 5:11). The basic contrast is between the weak and the greedy. The psalmist decries that “the wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy” (Psalm 37:14). The prophet rails against those “who write oppressive statutes to turn aside the needy from justice” (Isaiah 10:1-2). Their moral problem is that they have followed greed rather than God. As a result, the poor lose their basic productive resource (their land), and fall into cycles of indebtedness. Poverty is a problem of the whole human community, not only of those who are poor or vulnerable.

[4] In relation to those who are poor, Martin Luther’s insights into the meaning of the commandments against killing, stealing, and coveting are sobering. We violate “you shall not kill” when we do not help and support others to meet their basic needs. As Luther explained, “If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed [them], you have let [them] starve.”2 “To steal” can include “taking advantage of our neighbor in any sort of dealing that results in loss to him [or her] . . . wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or labor.”3 “You shall not covet” means “God does not wish you to deprive your neighbor of anything that is [theirs], letting [them] suffer loss while you gratify your greed.”4 Related Hebraic laws called for leaving produce in the fields for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:21), a periodic cancellation of debts (Deuteronomy 15:1), and a jubilee year in which property was to be redistributed or restored to those who had lost it, so that they might again have a means of livelihood (Leviticus 25).

[5] Today, well over a billion people in the world are deprived of what they need to meet their basic needs. Far more lack clean water, adequate sanitation, housing, or health services. They use whatever limited options are available to them in their daily struggle to survive. Thousands die daily. Millions pursue economic activities that are part of the underground or informal economy, and are not counted in economic statistics. Children often have no option but to labor under unjust conditions to provide for themselves and their families. Political struggles, militarism, and warfare add to this travesty, displacing masses of people from their homes.5 In many of the poorest countries, incomes continue to decline, and people subsist on less and less. Although most of the impoverished live in developing countries, where their numbers continue to grow at alarming rates, many millions are in the industrialized countries. Millions of poor people live in communities in the United States and the Caribbean where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is present.

[6] Developing countries that have opened their economies to global markets have generally reduced poverty over time more than those that have not, but the terms of trade often work to the disadvantage of developing countries. Seeking more just exchanges “for all” through investment and trade is a significant challenge. The danger is that less developed parts of the world, or less powerful groups within a country, will be exploited or excluded from participation in global markets.

[7] When a developing country becomes heavily indebted, the poorest are usually the most adversely affected. A huge share of a country’s income must be used to pay off debt, which may have been incurred unjustly or under corrupt rulers. Structural adjustment programs to pay off debt typically divert funds from much needed educational, health, and environmental efforts, and from infrastructures for economic development.

[8] God stands in judgment of those in authority who fall short of their responsibility, and is moved with compassion to deliver the impoverished from all that oppresses them: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3). The rich are expected to use wealth to benefit their neighbors who live in poverty here and throughout the world.

[9] In light of these realities, we commit ourselves as a church 6 and urge members to:

  • address creatively and courageously the complex causes of poverty;
  • provide opportunities for dialogue, learning, and strategizing among people of different economic situations and from different regions who are harmed by global economic changes;
  • give more to relieve conditions of poverty, and invest more in initiatives to reduce poverty

[10] We call for:

  • scrutiny of how specific policies and practices affect people and nations that are the poorest, and changes to make policies of economic growth, trade, and investment more beneficial to those who are poor;
  • efforts to increase the participation of low-income people in political and civic life, and citizen vigilance and action that challenges governments and other sectors when they become captive to narrow economic interests that do not represent the good of all;
  • shifts throughout the world from military expenditures to purposes that serve the needs of low-income people.
  • support for family planning and enhanced opportunities for women so that population pressures might be eased; 7
  • reduction of overwhelming international debt burdens in ways that do not impose further deprivations on the poor, and cancellation of some or all debt where severe indebtedness immobilizes a country’s economy;
  • investments, loan funds, hiring practices, skill training, and funding of micro-enterprises and other community development projects that can empower low-income people economically.


5 See the ELCA Message, “Immigration” (1998) and the ELCA Social Statement, “For Peace in God’s World” (1995), available from the Division for Church in Society (Call 800-638-3522, extension 2712, for this and other ELCA statements and studies).

6 In this and subsequent “we commit” sections, “church” includes congregations, synods, the churchwide organization, and where relevant, this calls upon affiliated organizations such as seminaries, schools, colleges and universities, and social ministry organizations to adjust their policies and practices accordingly.

7 “Global population growth, for example, relates to the lack of access by women to family planning and health care, quality education, fulfilling employment, and equal rights.” ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” (1993), 3-4.