Ok. Here we go. It’s time to dive into the always sensitive topic of poverty.
If you think the question I asked in the post title – what is the cause of poverty – can be answered in one concise sentence, then I’m going to guess you’ve never seriously thought about the question. Everyone I know who has spent any time in the presence of the poor acknowledges the complexity of the issue. There is no simple solution.
Categories of poor: There are groups of poor like the rural poor, the urban poor, and the third world poor.
Since I live in the third world, many of my comments come from that background. However, I’ll do my best to incorporate the little I’ve been taught about North American urban poverty.
When I read the Scriptures, I find it hard to imagine a church that does not find a ministry to the poor as one of its core functions. Yet, many of us are mostly ignoring the issue of poverty. I think we ignore it because we think poverty only results from personal choice.
Two Explanations for Poverty
In the book, Restoring At-Risk Communities, Lowell Noble and Ronald Potter identify two common reasons for poverty. They say:
One theory emphasizes the personal responsibility of those who are poor. Personal dysfunctions are blamed: lack of motivation, laziness, little education, poor family structure, or cultural values that no longer contain a sense of morality.
The second theory blames society for poverty – the right and powerful who control the political and economic institutions discriminate against or exploit the poor; the poor are created by and damaged by oppression.
Where do I stand on the issue?
First, I do not think that all the poor are lazy, insolent people who deserve their hardship (some are poor because of their actions). In my opinion, that line of thinking is calloused and crass. I believe that poverty exists because many of the poor come out of a dysfunctional system. As such, no one part is completely to blame. Nor will a change on one level bring health to the entire system. Thus, it is the individual, the community, and the government. These each contribute to the current financial dysfunctions we witness.
I’m not trying to remove personal responsibility in the discussion, but I think more of us need to be challenged to open our minds to the possibility that there are external contributing factors.
I tend to agree with John M. Perkins (in Restoring At-Risk Communities) when he says,
poverty is passed on from one generation to the next.
In the Bible, I think we see both perspectives. Proverbs, as an example, affirms and emphasizes that personal responsibility is crucial. However, the Prophets spend a great deal of time criticizing the oppression of the poor by the rich.
What causes poverty?
The conservatives will say (as quoted by Ronald Sider in Just Generosity):
Poverty resulted from wrong moral choices exacerbated by bad government policy.
I don’t think that tells the full story. I think anyone can overcome poverty, but it take a lot, and a lot, and a lot of unlearning bad life lessons and re-learning good life lessons.
Sider identifies four causes of poverty:
- Structural causes – decreasing number of low-skill, well-paying jobs
- Personal decision and misguided behavioral patterns
- Sudden catastrophes
- Permanent disabilities
I like this list. I think it shares a balanced view, and I think if we accept that some people are not poor by choice or laziness, then we, as the church, can actually start to reach out to those in need.
Photo by konradfoerstner.