In my study of "justice" and trying to better understand Jesus' charge of meeting the needs of the poor, I have wrestled with the concept "distributive justice" [see a good, but technical article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. The phrase means, basically, "fair distribution among all people." Distributive justice explores the social welfare topic of what equality means, who should be equal, how equality is expressed and what the measurement of equality is. More simply, distributive justice seeks to address questions such as, "How much should I help the homeless man on the street?" and "Should I feel bad about my higher standard of living. I did, after all, work hard to get here" and "What basic services should everyone be entitled to?"
If we're not careful, we can swing the social pendulum too far in either direction. Extremely far to the right and we conclude that, as free people, living in a capitalist state, every person has equal chance to provide for themselves and succeed. The only limiting factor is human will and determination. After all, you can be President if you just put your mind to it! So, society/government shouldn't step in to interfere with the progress of free individuals. Of course, this extreme position doesn't account for the uncontrollable factors that can limit an person's ability to reach their dreams [download "The Downward Spiral of Poverty"].
Swung too far to the left, socialism comes to light. Equality is ensured through government intervention in health care, income, housing, etc. This neutralizing force destroys the entrepreneurial spirit and rewards those who self-limit themselves through bad decisions.
I appreciate the insight of Ronald Nash in his research, Social Justice and the Christian Church. Nash explores both sides of the issue and concludes that distributive justice means "equal opportunity, not necessarily equal outcome." It is equal means, not equal results. This is a significant reflection. Because it it shows me where I fit into alleviating the problem of poverty. Justice means that I practice and promote equality among people--the kind of justice that meets the basic needs of freedom, food, shelter, clothing and dignity. My job isn't to raise all people up to a particular standard of living. I can't be responsible for the outcomes of my assistance. All I can do, in the Spirit of Jesus, is seek to level the playing field of the poor around me by helping them enjoy the basic opportunities I enjoy. Beyond that, I trust God to be in charge for the outcome.