Work and Poverty Alleviation
Adapted from Becoming Whole 155-57, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole 110 – 111, and the Work Life Facilitator Guide.
If we believe that material poverty is rooted in brokenness in our four key relationships (with God, self, others, and creation) that results from the Fall, shouldn’t we be interested in pursuing poverty alleviation strategies that lead to healing in all four relationships as well?
One of the most effective means of addressing all of these relationships is helping those we’re walking with rediscover the purpose and power of work.
Enabling people in material poverty to engage in work that pays a living wage is the most sustainable way for them to no longer be materially poor. But work is so much more than just a means to gaining income that provides for our material needs. It lies close to the heart of what it means to be human.
Work Is Rooted in Relationships
As toilsome as our jobs may feel this side of the curse (see Gen. 3:17-19), work is not just a necessary evil that we have to endure to make a living. Nor is work an “afterthought” in God’s design.
In the garden, Adam and Eve were commissioned to protect creation and unpack the potentialities that God has placed in it (Gen. 1:28-29). There is a sense in which, though the world which God made was “very good” and without sin, He left it “incomplete,” calling humans to interact with the creation, to make possibilities into realities, and to sustain ourselves with the fruits of these labors. Note also that Adam and Eve’s commission here was given in the context of deep, loving relationships with God, self, and others.
Before the triune God created the world, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in eternal, loving communion. Out of this loving communion, the triune God creates and acts. As His image bearers, God establishes humans’ intimate relationships with God, self, and others before He commands us to work. Remember, God said it was not good for humans to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Our being in communion precedes our doing.
Work is good; it was a part of creation and will be a part of abundant life in the new heavens and the new earth. God’s people are called to recognize that all legitimate work is ultimately work done under the Lordship of Christ. If even thieves are called to work with their hands in order to have something to give (Eph. 4:28), then surely God has called all of His people to do good work as His chosen means by which people participate in and contribute to the life of the community.
Consistent with this biblical teaching, the empirical finding that being employed greatly increases people’s overall well-being “is one of the most robust results to have come out of the economic study of human happiness.” 1
Work in Light of the Fall
There are many implications of this truth in our poverty alleviation ministries, primarily that people who are materially poor need work that pays. But when we try to open doors for good work, we often encounter obstacles that remind us that we’re not in the garden anymore.
In a culture here in the United States that praises “autonomous individuals” who “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” through their entrepreneurial drive and hard work, we have a warped view of the purpose and value of work. And this view often shapes attitudes of the mainstream culture toward people in material poverty—“Why don’t you get a job? There are plenty of jobs available. Just apply”—and when people fail to follow through with these instructions, we conclude that they must be lazy and don’t really want to work.
It is true that many people from low-income backgrounds have turned away from work as a meaningful or even helpful part of their lives. Myriad factors contribute to this reality, particularly in communities dominated by multi-generational poverty. Because many people in material poverty have a marred sense of identity, many have lost the vision for stewarding the resources and potential that God has given to them. Again, many people in poverty have a marred identity and a diminished sense of vocation. They have internalized messages like: “You are worthless,” “you can’t do it,” and “work is stupid anyway.”
But this is not the only demographic whose views on work are distorted. Many successful, middle class North Americans demonstrate a marked overconfidence in themselves and in our economic system. Globalized capitalism has resulted in unprecedented material prosperity, but too often, it does not produce human flourishing. Work divorced from proper relationships is contributing to an explosion of mental health problems and a dysfunctional society. Without a proper anchoring in our relationships with God, self, and others, work becomes an idol.
Moreover, few middle-to-upper-class North Americans relate to the Bible’s testimony that the poor’s land produces a crop, but injustice sweeps it away (Proverbs 13:23), but such injustice is an everyday reality for many of our materially poor neighbors. We are often blind to the ways that people who are poor can make the right choices and still end up in very difficult situations due to structural injustice, racism, inequitable educational systems, and problematic economic systems. Many of our low-income neighbors desire employment but struggle to find work that sustains them. Ignoring these realities in the workplace when advocating for the importance of finding and keeping a good job can further damage the identity of our neighbors made in God’s image.
Work in Restored Community
Both the materially poor and the materially well-off need community in order to be able to work well to God’s glory.
People in material poverty need to hear from God and loving people: “You are loved. You have gifts. You are precious. You bear the image of God Almighty. You are called to work. God is with you. We are with you. And when you fail, God still loves you, and we do too.”
People in material prosperity likewise need reminders of God’s love for them so that they can rest in their identity as his image-bearers rather than in the functional worship of their work and productivity. They need to hear: “You don’t have to prove your worth. You don’t have to use work to justify our existence. You can deaden the pain of loneliness by acquiring more goods, but that won’t satisfy your soul.”
These are not just sentimental words. By God’s grace, these words actually change people—and they change us. They help the listener realize who they are, who God is, and how they fit into His kingdom and world. Over time, these messages of grace—communicated in the context of deep community with God and others—provide the support necessary for the materially poor and materially wealthy alike to find and keep meaningful work. We discover who we are and how we are meant to live not in isolation, but within the security of God’s family.
So many people are searching for hope and looking for an opportunity. The church should long to witness people from low-income backgrounds hear God calling them toward re-creation in every area of life, and more specifically, by adding value to His world through work. In discovering their potential as unique stewards of God’s world, unemployed or underemployed people can make significant, meaningful change in their lives by transforming their beliefs and choices around work that live into new creation.
How You Can Get Involved
Wondering how you can be involved in helping people in your community find and keep meaningful work? Sign up for our free Intro to Work Life course where we walk you through the process of starting a jobs readiness program in your church or nonprofit.
- John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, editors, The World Happiness Report 2017 (New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2017), 146. See also A.E. Clark, “Work, Jobs and Well-Being Across the Millenium” in International Differences in Well-Being, Ed Diener, John Helliwell, and Daniel Kahneman, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)..