5 Causes of Poverty - Broken Systems

The Five Causes of Poverty—Part 4: Broken Systems

[author_box layout="inline_avatar" show_title="false"] – June 14, 2022

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, 119-124.

In this series, our most recent post focused on addressing individual brokenness—the factors within a person, including personal choices and beliefs, that can contribute to material poverty. But as we’ve been saying throughout the series, there are both internal and external causes of relational and material poverty. Systems are broken, and individuals are broken.

There is a sense in which the cards are stacked against all of us. While those of us who are not materially poor should never compare our struggles with those who are, the truth is that broken systems have damaged all of us in different ways. 

None of us chose to be born into the communities that have enculturated us to automatically and unconsciously think, feel, and act in the ways that we do. Just as people who are materially poor are deeply shaped by the systems of their communities, so are those who are materially better-off. 

We all need liberation from systemic and personal brokenness. The only difference is that those who are materially poor often realize they need it, while those who aren’t generally do not. If the systems of a culture “work” for us in terms of providing for our material needs, it’s easy to be blind A) to the harm they cause to those for whom they work less well and B) the ways they harm us in spiritual, emotional, and social ways.

Recognizing Broken Systems

This is where many evangelical Christians from the majority culture get tripped up in their efforts to address material poverty. In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that many Christians from this demographic are “accountable freewill individualists.” As such, they believe that individuals are “independent of structures and institutions, have free will, and are individually accountable for their own actions.” In addition, the strong commitment to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to individual piety has narrowed the scope of evangelicals’ concerns so that social structures are simply off the radar screen. 1

While it is certainly true that the Bible always holds individuals accountable for their own thoughts and actions, it is inconsistent with Scripture to view people as “independent of structures and institutions.” Just as a wheel is shaped by the road on which it travels, we mind-affections-will-body-relational creatures are necessarily impacted by our environments, including the formal and informal systems of our cultural surroundings. The Bible repeatedly warns us about the corrupting power of the people and systems around us (1 Cor. 15:33, Rom. 12:2, etc.).

For those of us who tend to be blind to the role of systems in our lives, walking in relationship with people in material poverty across time can help us recognize the obstacles systems put in their paths. Through their eyes, in their shoes, the world is a different place.

Addressing Broken Systems

Can you think of any ways in which systems have shaped you to automatically and even unconsciously think, feel, or act in certain ways? Which of these ways are consistent with God’s story of change, and which are more reflective of the “pattern of the world?”

How might your poverty alleviation ministry explore ways that broken systems may be contributing to the material poverty of the people whom it is seeking to help and express empathy to them about these struggles? 

Once you’ve identified a broken system that your ministry will seek to address, here are three suggestions to approach this thorny and entrenched cause of poverty:

  • Address broken systems by navigating existing ones.
    You might be able to find ways to help people in material poverty better navigate the existing systems they live within. This is the approach of The Chalmers Center’s Faith & Finances curriculum. By helping participants understand the dangers of various types of predatory lenders, how to calculate interest rates, and understand the benefits of bank accounts, Faith & Finances helps people walk through the minefield of systems without stepping on the mines, largely through bringing low-income participants into relationship with middle-income allies who are familiar with the ins and outs of the U.S. banking and financial system.
  • Address broken systems by reforming them.
    Sometimes a ministry can create alternative systems on a micro level. This is the essence of the savings and credit associations that the Chalmers Center helps local churches and ministries to create in the Majority World.

    Financial systems in much of the world are profoundly inadequate for people who are poor. Banks are often unavailable, especially in rural areas. And even when there are banks, those most in need typically cannot meet the minimum balance requirements for savings accounts, and they lack acceptable collateral to be able to borrow. As a result, people in deep material poverty are often at the mercy of loan sharks, who lend them money at exorbitant interest rates.

Savings and credit associations are like mini-banks that poor people own and operate themselves. While a single association will not change the entire banking system, it does create an alternative system for the group members whom the ministry is trying to help, and often they spread over time by word of mouth and through ministry partnerships.

  • Address broken systems by reforming them.
    Some ministries may be called to address broken systems by trying to reform them altogether. One such approach is called “community organizing,” a process that develops the local leadership, relationships, and momentum to bring wide-scale change to the systems affecting a community. More information about this approach can be found in When Helping Hurts.2 In addition, some ministries may be called to advocate for systemic change at a more macro level, seeking to reform the institutions for the entire society.
  1. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Faith in America (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 76-77
  2. See especially pages 234–257.
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