Why Poverty Is More than a Lack of Material Resources
Adapted from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Ourselves.
Defining poverty is not simply an academic exercise. The ways we define poverty—either implicitly or explicitly—play a major role in determining the solutions we use in our attempts to alleviate that poverty.
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 might result in the patient not getting better and possibly getting worse.
Similarly, when it comes to addressing poverty, those who seek to help need to be mindful of root causes. If those seeking to help people in poverty treat only the visible symptoms or if they misunderstand underlying problems, those struggling with poverty will not improve their situation, and their lives may actually get worse.
A Case Study
Near the end of World War II, allied nations established an organization, known as the World Bank, with a special mission to help fix the countries in Europe that were shattered by the war. Loans from the World Bank and other aid from the U.S. government (The Marshall Plan) did a good job with this task, and the countries in Europe that had been destroyed by the war began to experience faster economic growth than they ever had before.
This success prompted the World Bank to try a similar approach in helping economically challenged countries later in the 20th century. They decided to lend money to these countries on good terms, hoping it would help them grow their economies and reduce poverty. However, in this case, the plan didn’t work as well as they hoped.
The same approach led to a different outcome.
When the World Bank poured money into countries like France to rebuild them, it worked really well. But when they tried the same thing in places like India, it didn’t have the same positive effects. Even though both places seemed to have similar problems—poverty, hunger, refugees, limited infrastructure, and weak economies—there was something different about the way things worked in different countries.
Finding a way to solve the issue of poverty proved to be more difficult than the World Bank expected. In the 1990s, after a lot of trial and error, the World Bank decided to try something new. They went directly to the experts on poverty: people who were experiencing poverty.
They asked more than sixty thousand poor individuals from sixty different lower-income countries a very simple question: What does it mean to be poor? In short, the answers were surprising.
Here are a few examples:
For a poor person everything is terrible—illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.1 — Moldova
When I don’t have any [food to bring my family], I borrow, mainly from neighbors and friends. I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.2 — Guinea-Bissau
During the past two years we have not celebrated any holidays with others. We cannot afford to invite anyone to our house and we feel uncomfortable visiting others without bringing a present. The lack of contact leaves one depressed, creates a constant feeling of unhappiness, and a sense of low self-esteem.3 — Latvia
When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family.4 — Uganda
[The poor have] a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard.5 — Cameroon
Over the years, when we’ve asked people in churches in North America—churches primarily attended by middle-to-upper-class white Americans—to define poverty, we’ve noticed an interesting pattern. In most cases, the way these people described poverty was different from how people in poverty in low-income countries described it.
While people in material poverty mentioned not having enough things like food, money, clean water, medicine, and a place to live, they also talked about how their situation made them feel on the inside. They used words like shame, feeling less important, having no power, feeling embarrassed, being scared, losing hope, feeling very sad, being all alone, and not having a say in anything. On the other hand, the North American audiences focused mostly on the lack of material things.
In North America, though there have not been as extensive of studies as the World Bank’s survey, many have noted similar patterns among those living in poverty. For example, political philosopher Cornel West found a deep hopelessness, a “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair”6 pervading many low-income, African-American communities in the U.S.
This difference in how poverty is seen by outsiders and how it is experienced by people living in poverty raises some significant challenges for efforts to fight poverty. Poverty isn’t only about not having enough material things. It’s also about losing a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope. It’s like people in poverty and people outside of it are speaking different languages and not understanding each other.
If Christians want to obey God’s commands to love and care for our neighbors in need, we have to think about more than just giving out money or material things like food and clothing. If people in material poverty are actually expressing their needs in emotional, even spiritual terms as well, we should reframe our poverty alleviation efforts to address all of the various facets of poverty. The problems of poverty go much deeper than just material needs, so the ways we fight poverty need to go further as well.
This is what the work of The Chalmers Center is all about. To learn more about what poverty is, check out this video.
- As quoted in Deepa Narayan with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, Sarah Kock-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Oxford Univ. Press for the World Bank, 2000), 65.
- As quoted in Deepa Narayan with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, Sarah Kock-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Oxford Univ. Press for the World Bank, 2000), 37.
- As quoted in Deepa Narayan with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, Sarah Kock-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Oxford Univ. Press for the World Bank, 2000), 70.
- As quoted in Deepa Narayan with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, Sarah Kock-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Oxford Univ. Press for the World Bank, 2000), 38.
- As quoted in Deepa Narayan with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, Sarah Kock-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Oxford Univ. Press for the World Bank, 2000), 39.
- Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 19–20.