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.

The Potential of Those in Poverty

Jim Nowlan recently wrote a piece entitled, “Poverty Doesn’t Limit Your Potential.” In this editorial, he provides many examples of successful individuals who broke the cycle of poverty. I’m sure we all know someone who, despite humble beginnings, became successful. James “Cash” Penny comes to mind. J.C. started off far worse than most people on welfare today. His hard work benefited the masses and made him millions. I like these stories.

If all other things were equal, and if poverty was just a matter of insufficient income, as some suggest, I’d have to agree with Mr Nowlan.  Sadly, things are not equal; life is not fair. I believe that there are many contributing factors to poverty. Access to a good education, proper role models, parental involvement, internal motivation, micro-cultural attitudes toward success – it’s these factors and more that threaten a person’s potential, not just a lack of money.

An individual’s potential is limited to their knowledge, skills, expertise, and maturity. The more these areas are hindered, the more likely a person is to be unsuccessful and live a life in poverty. Jim Nowlan gave us anecdotal evidence of those who busted out of that poverty. I like the stories. But they are stories, and simply not the norm. A 2009 study by The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University found exactly that. Those who grow up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty as an adult and the odds increased the longer they lived in poverty as a child. Why? Childhood is a critical time to learn the knowledge, skills, expertise, and the maturity needed for success in adulthood.

Take something as simple as the daily interaction between children and parents. On average, children in a professional family household hear over 2,100 words per hour. A child born into a “working class family” hears 1,200 words per hour while a child living in a welfare family environment may hear only 600 words per hour. The cumulative effect of this is significant. A 10-year-old child growing up in a welfare home will not hear as many words as a 3-year-old whose parents are working professionals. While I reject the idea that one is more advantaged than the other, it’s clear that one has a marked disadvantage.

Many see poverty simply as a lack of income and a solution to the poverty problem is to throw money at it in a variety of ways: welfare, a hand-out from a benevolent church, redistribution of wealth, or even the most recent idea of a universal basic income. I’ll let others debate the validity of these approaches. I have my doubts, and so does history. I will argue that this is not enough. Even if we were able to subsidize every family living today in such a way that they lived above the poverty line, we’d be robbing them, and the rest of us, of their full potential.

What, after all, is potential? When and how is it realized? J.C Penny reached his potential. He not only met and exceeded his physical and financial needs, he also reached the point that he was able to serve others. The potential of those living in true poverty is beyond our imagination. Our investment in them must be more than in dollars. It must be a lifelong walk developing the whole person.

Only in that way we do we ALL reach our full potential.

More Than a Store

More Than a Store

Salt & Light is more than a store. 

Now, you won’t see it when you walk into Salt & Light.  No, when you walk in you will see a store.  We have clothing, shoes, furniture, and households.  There is a changing room in the back.  There are cash registers up front.  We have groceries, fresh produce, frozen items, and awesome sales everyday.  There are dozens of staff and volunteers here to serve you as you make your purchases.  We are a store that’s open for everyone.  That you can clearly see.  And we need you to shop. 

 

Our store is here to serve you.  It’s also here to serve us.  See, at our core we are a ministry.  Our desire is to share God’s love by fighting poverty and it’s damaging harmful effects to individuals, generations, and to society as a whole.  We do this by empowering people with new and fresh opportunities that lead to lasting change.  Our desire is to see people become the people God desires them to be.  They then bring change to their family line and to the community they reside in.  The store is where this happens. 

 

Salt & Light is a training ground.

Poverty is a complex creature and fighting it one must take a multifaceted approach.  One way we do this is by opening up opportunities, like vocational training and education.  The prospect for on the job training here is huge and the possibilities continue to grow!

  • Administration/office
  • Dispatch
  • Clothing processors
  • Retail
  • Grocery
  • Customer service
  • Warehouse
  • Professional internships
  • Merchandising
  • Delivery

In each of these departments one can learn a variety of skills.  Teamwork, problem solving, self management, and computer skills are just a few examples.  Non for profit groups, schools, and even churches have found this to be true and use Salt & Light a safe place to train the people they work with. 

People also come to us on their own initiative seeking help.  We call the people we work with directly “participants” as opposed to “recipients” or “clients.”  Participants fill out and keep their own schedule, they clock in, they work as a team, and they work (really hard).  Our participants gain useful skills and vital self-confidence through daily encouragement.  

Salt & Light restores dignity.

Our participants are called so because they are actively engaged in meeting their own needs.  Participants earn $8.25 in store credit an hour and can earn up to $165 a month.  With that they can choose what food they will put on their table or even which table they are going to put in their home. They provide what they need by their own efforts.  That’s something that many are robbed of in most poverty alleviation efforts.  Though done with the best of intentions, when one in need is handed something without any costs, week after week, it is unintentionally communicated that they have nothing to offer.  We have found that free is actually costly.  It demands the recipient pay with dignity.  We fight poverty with dignity.    

Our participants are meeting their needs.  Their spirit is refreshed as they do so.

We also work with many people who may never find work outside of Salt & Light.  Disabilities limit their job choices.  They don’t lack resources as much as they lack purpose, yet another form of poverty.  Salt & Light meets this need as well.  You can see it in the eyes of “the least of these” when they proudly say, “I work for Salt & Light!”

Salt & Light is a community. 

When you walk into our store, you might not see at first glance that we are more than a store.  But if you listen, you might hear it:  “This is my home away from home.” 

I’ve never heard, “This is my happy place…” at a big box retail store.  Here at Salt & Light, if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times – “this is my family.”  This truly is a place where community happens and not just for our participants.  Customers, donors, staff, and volunteers have found this place to be their place.  Why?  At our core, if we are anything, we are relational. 

We have found that lasting change happens at the relational level.  According to Dr. Thomas Sowell, isolation is a major contributing factor to the poverty problem.  People in poverty lack strong social networks and/or they don’t have the same access to knowledge or methodologies that other “successful” groups have.  Doing life together opens up a new world with new possibilities. 

More simple than that, people are more open to help a friend than they are a stranger.  You might not cross a street for a stranger…you’ll move mountains for a friend.  And, yes, even a struggling person needs to trust the one who is trying to help.  A cold handout won’t change the world.  Love will.  We are relational.   

And that’s what makes this place unique. 

Jesus said it: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  You Can’t buy that in a store. He can’t merchandise that. You can’t even teach that in customer service. And that’s why we are not just a store.  We are Salt & Light.

the real question of poverty

The Real Question of Poverty

 

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about poverty.  It seems like there is ongoing controversy about what can be done to help those in poverty.  Although lots of people from all kinds of different philosophical and religious backgrounds feel it’s important to help the poor, and all are approaching the issue with good intentions, just as with most things that are truly important, there are strong disagreements regarding how to go about it.  I don’t mean to minimize the efforts of all those who are working hard and often making great sacrifices to do what they feel is in the best interests of America’s poor, but I wonder how often we are jumping the gun by debating the question of methodology before answering a much more important question.  I think that before we can truly know anything about how to help those in poverty, we first have to ask, exactly what is poverty?

Hunger isn’t What You’ve Been Told it is: Part 1

Salt and Light Ministries Champaign, IL

hungry          adjective / hun·gry / ˈhəŋ-grē

  1. a: feeling an uneasy or painful sensation from lack of food: feeling hunger (merriam-webster.com)

You have probably seen countless commercials, billboards, and advertisements lamenting the number of people suffering from hunger in the U.S., and if you’re like me you have felt some degree of shock, outrage and responsibility to do something about it.

The problem is, the messaging simply isn’t true.

Before you read any more I want you to picture all of the images that come to mind as a result of the advertisements and “public service” announcements you see and hear regarding hunger in the U.S. At the end of this article I want you to compare these marketing-induced images with the realities of the majority of those standing in our food pantry lines. When you have done this, you can decide for yourself whether we are being misled.