An Incomplete Understanding of Poverty Leads to Solutions That Don’t Work

What is poverty?

Merriam-Webster defines poverty as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.

Our government’s own definition (all 184 words of it) is rooted in income thresholds based on family size and composition to determine who is in “poverty”.

While a household’s economic position is certainly an indication of financial sustainability, to relegate our definition and our understanding of poverty to an economic measurement only is an oversimplification, and a big part of the reason why our attempts to eradicate it have been largely unsuccessful.

It is vitally important we appropriately define what poverty (the problem) is if we have any hope of ever significantly addressing it.

At Salt & Light we ascribe to the understanding of poverty put forward by Bryant Myers, a leading Christian Development thinker. He argues that God established four foundational relationships for each person; 1) Relationship with God, 2) Relationship with self, 3) Relationship with others, and 4) Relationship with the rest of creation. He asserts when these relationships are functioning properly, we experience the fullness of life God intended.

The authors of When Helping Hurts state, “In particular for our purposes, when these relationships are functioning properly, people are able to fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”

According to Myers, poverty, then, is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

By this definition, all of us can experience a state of “poverty” when any of these four relationships are not functioning properly. In this way Myers draws a clear distinction between the different aspects of poverty and that of a lack of stuff (material poverty).

Because we as a nation have defined the problem of poverty as a lack of material resources, our solutions have been to simply provide access to the resources through a myriad of programs and services, never really identifying or addressing the root causes of the problem.

I absolutely love the analogy the authors of When Helping Hurts use:

When a sick person goes to the doctor, the doctor could make two crucial mistakes: 1) Treating symptoms instead of the underlying illness; 2) Misdiagnosing the underlying illness and prescribing the wrong medicine. Either one of these mistakes will result in the patient not getting better and possibly getting worse. The same is true when we work with poor people. If we treat only the symptoms or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation, and we might actually make their lives worse. (pg. 51)

The table above illustrates how different diagnoses of the cause of poverty lead to different poverty-alleviation strategies.

The truth is, material poverty can be a result of any or all four—lack of education, broken systems, poor choices, and a lack of material resources. Most of the individuals I have encountered over the last 15 years are often impacted by more than one of these forces.

If we fail to deepen our understanding of poverty and adjust our alleviation efforts based on that understanding we will only have either ignorance or apathy to blame. Unfortunately, for far too long too many of us (Christians included) have not bothered to familiarize ourselves with the problems so many in our country face. I believe the primary reason for this is because we simply do not really care. Sure, we’ll give it lip service, volunteer for that event or that program so we can check the box, and then go through life never actually knowing someone struggling to make it. Not, that one poor guy I know from the thing I do occasionally, but really know, experience community with, get your hands dirty, learn from and share with kind of know. The truth is, we like our bubbles. They allow us to feel safe and comfortable without ever being challenged on the things we say we believe while we ignore the realities of others.

I hope and pray this is not the kind of weak understanding and experience I have had with the least of these when I stand before the one who created me. I want my life to be testimony that screams I knew God, I loved God, and because of it I loved people.

One comment

  1. Nathan, I love this article. It was written from a place of compassion and wisdom. I have one question, though. In that last paragraph, where you italicize “the least of these”, what do you mean by that phrase and the emphasis put on it?

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