What is the Cause of Poverty?

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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:

  1. Structural causes – decreasing number of low-skill, well-paying jobs
  2. Personal decision and misguided behavioral patterns
  3. Sudden catastrophes
  4. 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.



    • says

      Thanks for the solid reminder of the importance of allowing our interactions to be a reflection of God working in us. We certainly cannot do this on our own.
      Get to work on your post. I’d love to read it.
      You’re certainly right – there is more to it than laziness! Thanks for sharing those experiences.
      Hey – are you the Jeremy I know? :). That mug looks familiar. Thanks for visiting MH4C. I usually prefer to be biased, but I’ll take fair and balanced for this post.

  1. Oregonsun says

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

    As a small side note I have noticed that as our economy (USA) has slipped and faltered people are being “pinched.” In the city that I am in several businesses have closed and living wage jobs are few. Recently people have been posting want ads on Craigslist for simple basic needs. Requests for food, clothes, school supplies and repeatedly state that they are either unemployed or paid a low wage and just can’t get by.

    At one time I worked with the Food Stamp Program. As you so clearly stated, not everyone was needing help because they were lazy. It broke my heart to see people that were working 55 to 60 hours a week, minimum wage, had no benefits and had children. These people were not lazy.

  2. says

    Good article. The Bible tells us in Proverbs 10:15 and Deuteronomy 28 that poverty is a curse. Curses can be broken when the blessing of Abraham is activated in the life of a person. See Genesis 14:19 (the blessing had to be activated in the life of Abraham by the Priest) and Genesis 28:4 where the blessing of Abraham was activated in the life of Jacob by his father, Isaac. Every father should be speaking that same blessing over their children just like Isaac did.

    God gave the Priests (Pastors) authority the speak a blessing over the people (Numbers 6:22-27). This blessing is to be spoken word for word unless God has changed His mind and I do not think He has. Is a Priest or Pastor speaking that blessing over you? It could change your life.

    The Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 8:9 that Jesus became poor that we could be made rich. Jesus said in Matthew 9:29 “According to your faith, be it unto you”.
    Faith for finances will increase your finances every time just like faith for salvation will save you every time.

    John 10:10 Jesus said that He came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

    3 John 2 tells us that God wants us to prosper and be in health at the same rate that our soul (mind and spirit) prospers. If you prosper your soul by hearing God’s word your finances will increase.

    It is never God’s will for anyone to be sick or broke and if you increase your faith for finances by hearing God’s Word on finances (Romans 10:17) you can increase your finances.

    God’s Word will save your soul, heal your body and pay your bills.

    God Bless

  3. says

    I’m with you all the way on this, Craig. Yes, poverty can be caused and intensified by personal choices, but there is so much more to the equation than that. Like you mentioned, structural causes, catastrophes, and disabilities are other major causes. These can be overcome, but they are extremely difficult obstacles if you don’t have significant help. I think that’s why God so clearly calls us time and again to help the poor, needy, widows, orphans, and disabled (lame, blind, etc.). We who are not struggling in poverty have a clear responsibility to help those in need.

    On the other hand, I think we must be careful of how we look at that responsibility – as if it is completely our duty or that we can do it on our own. What I mean is that we must recognize that true, sincere, and deep compassion are a result of God’s love working in us. It’s not something that occurs completely naturally, and even when it does it won’t look like the compassion that results from the power of Christ in us.

    I really enjoy your articles on poverty, so please keep sharing even if it is a touchy issue. It’s something we all need to be thinking more about and figuring out how we can work together to help each other.

    I’ve had a thought for a post that I haven’t written yet. I think I’m going to get on it now. I was wondering the other day what it would look like for my wife and I to live at the poverty level (based on U.S. guidelines) and also how that would compare with the third world. I don’t have much experience with third world poverty, but I can do some research to at least form some sort of comparison.

    Thanks for bringing this back up to my mind!

  4. says

    I think anyone in USA can overcome poverty but some people have the odds heavily stacked against them. If the poor are making bad decisions and keeping themselves poor then you need to see why they are making those bad decisons…. Often I think it’s a lack of people treating them right from young age. If everyone around you treats you like a deadbeat it takes a special moment of enlightenment to get out of that funk. Most people cannot be blamed for staying there. Also as a minority you are faced with daily challenges that can really wear you down.

    Outside of places like USA like where you are and other areas of the global south you can absolutely be kept poor by the government. The class system is so entrenched here in Egypt that it is practically impossible for anyone from a poor background to get a high pay job. I know a very high qualified man who is in a high qualified position yet gets paid a quarter of his juniors who are from rich backgrounds and there is nothing he can do about it….. According to the company he should be grateful they let him do that job due to his background…. He is one of the lucky ones as he managed to strive for an education.

    The other side is the kids that have to work from the moment they walk….. They really cannot escape poverty.

    Great topic.

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing, Forest! I found your comments about the class system in Egypt to be especially interesting.

    I think you’re right about the mindset/psychology side of things. Maybe one thing we can do better to help those in poverty is to treat them like they have the power to change their situation but do it in a non-judgmental way. Let them know we believe in who they are and what they can do.

    I also agree with you about the kids who have to work from very young. If you’re always struggling to barely survive, there’s no time to get an education, learn new skills, or improve yourself. Each hour is necessary to secure the little bit of food you can get for the day.

  6. says


    Great, balanced post! I wanted to share one thing I recently read in the Washington Post. Stephen Pearlstein wrote that the “rewards” from rewards credit cards ultimately come from “the consumer, who is paying for those rebates, as merchants raise their prices to cover those additional costs. When all is said and done, all that’s really happening is that the credit card companies are taking money out of your left pocket, setting aside a hefty fee for themselves and putting what’s left back in your right pocket.”

    If that is true and rewards cards raises prices, how can the poor keep up if the rich and middle class are raising the prices trying to get “rewards”?

    So, one might argue, that not only are there bad moral choices and bad government policy, but even our own “innocent” personal choices are causing some of their pain. It is a sobering thought, but one we must face, verify, and determine if we will continue to seek personal gain at the expense of “the least of these”.

    Keep up the good work,
    Proverbs 14:31

    • says

      I’ve heard this sort of thing, but I haven’t done enough digging to know if I really agree. However, I completely agree with the premise of your comment. How we spend our money or make choice might be hurting others without even knowing it. This could be true in the types of products we buy because others get hurt in the process.

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