February 15, 2015

What Exactly is Poverty Anyway?

Poverty can be a tricky thing to get your mind around. Our church’s ministry brings me (Mike) into contact with different kinds of people in need. In one suburb nearby, we distribute food to Latin American immigrants who may not have the legal standing to pursue government assistance. In another suburb, we work with people living in a homeless shelter. In yet another, we work with “at-risk” immigrant teenagers who attend the local high school. By almost any account, these are the people that we would think of as “poor.” But as we have grown to know the people in each of these groups, we realize that their experience of poverty is complicated.

I remember once speaking to a man who had recently come to our town from a very poor part of Central America. He was hungry and told me through an interpreter that he hadn’t eaten a meal that day. As we talked, it became clear that this man and I had a very different view of his economic condition. To my way of thinking, not eating for 24 hours would be about the worst thing that could happen. I have never been forced to go hungry against my will. For this man, it was nothing unusual. In fact, things were much worse for him in his home country. His frustration was not primarily with his inability to find work to pay for his own expenses; he was upset that he wasn’t earning enough money to send back to Central America to help provide for his family. As tough as things were for him at that moment, he was aware that he had access to more material resources than he had ever known in his life. He didn’t think of himself as poor.

On the other hand, take the residents of the local homeless shelter. These people are American citizens. For the most part, they speak English, understand the way American culture works, and have access to government assistance programs. They live at a standard far below what they expected for their lives. But if you step back for a moment, you can see that we need to give a little more thought to why we would describe them as “poor.” After all, they have access to nutritious food, medical care, and indoor plumbing. They sleep in cramped quarters, but the shelter is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They have cable TV, electric lights, and puzzles to keep away the boredom. If you were momentarily transported to the slums of New Delhi or to rural Zimbabwe, you might not think that the homeless back in Northern Virginia are that badly off. Their creature comforts would be envied.

Still, we know intuitively that these American homeless are poor. To deny it sounds like a cheap excuse to avoid caring and helping. After all, who of us in homes and steady jobs would want to trade places with them? My point, rather, is to say that poverty is more complicated than something that can be superficially captured in digits and dollar signs.

What is Poverty?

When we think about poverty, Westerners normally think in terms of access to resources. We have a so-called “poverty line,” an income threshold that determines who the government considers to be impoverished. Politicians and journalists weigh in on the various ways that poor people lack access to quality education, healthy food supplies, affordable housing, and adequate medical care. Public discourse on addressing the needs of the poor usually revolves around the best ways to help them secure those things that they lack.

In their outstanding book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert analyze a study conducted by the World Bank that asked poor people to describe what it was like to be poor. And they found that the view that poor people have of their own poverty often goes much deeper than a list of the things that they lack. They tend to speak in terms of experiences like powerlessness, hopelessness, loss of meaning, and shame. Merely providing resources will not relieve the deeper dimensions of poverty that these people experience.

Take, for example, people living in the housing schemes of Edinburgh, the ones where Mez works. Through government assistance, they may have access to medical care, housing, education, and the material resources they need to feed their families. But long-standing patterns of drug addiction, alcoholism, crime, and broken family structures combine to keep people in the schemes in cycles of poverty and misery. They don’t need bread; they need an entirely new way of life.

For this reason, it is our conviction that churches that are content to merely provide material assistance to needy people are missing an opportunity to minister to them at a deeper level. Certainly, food and shelter are important. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan still stands; indifference to someone in need is un-Christian. But material resources and skills training alone will not address all of the needs poor people have.

The one unique thing that a local church has to offer to people mired in poverty is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a solution to poverty, at least not in the sense of resolving and removing all of the myriad problems that poor people face in their lives on this earth. But the gospel word is the message of God to people who are caught in the complex patterns of personal sin and systemic challenges that comprise poverty.

While those challenges may never change in this life (John 12:8), the gospel comes to a poor person with news of a loving God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up freely for the salvation of sinners. The gospel comes to a poor person with the promise of the power of the Holy Spirit to change and sanctify us, breaking with long-standing patterns of self-destructive behavior. The gospel comes to a poor person with a call to repent of the futile way of life handed down to them from the forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18). The gospel comes to a poor person with the message that they can be fabulously wealthy even if their economic circumstances stay the same (Rev. 2:9). The gospel comes to a poor person with a message of hope for a world that will be made new, where sickness and poverty and fear will be put away (Rev. 21:4). It is our conviction that the one thing the poor need most is the gospel message. Other things may be very important, but they are still secondary.

This post is adapted from Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.

  • Mike McKinley

    Mike McKinley is senior pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia. He is married to Karen and they have five children.

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