(Re)Defining Poverty

When most of us think about poverty, we probably have a pretty clear idea about what we mean. Poverty means not having enough money.

Some of us might think about it a bit more. We might make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. We might make a distinctions between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. Some of us might think about poverty in relation to other issues. We might consider poverty and economic rights, poverty and social rights, or poverty and cultural rights. We might understand poverty as a symptom of bigger social and political issues.

But when you get down to it, even those of us who think about poverty a lot still think of poverty as not having enough money.

Which is why it’s noticeable when those making a case against charity define poverty in different way. And it’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that means that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.”1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 209-210 It’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that makes solving the ‘not having enough money’ problem less important than solving some other set of problems.

For example, when Ruby Payne defines poverty, she describes it as “the ‘extent to which an individual does without resources.'”2Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Location 194 While these resources include financial resources, they also include emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as other things like support systems, role models, knowledge of ‘hidden rules’, and coping strategies. Unsurprisingly, given her perspective and the quote in the previous paragraph, most of her work is focused on addressing these other deficits. In fact, because one of the ‘hidden rules’ of poverty is that “any extra money is… shared or quickly spent,”3Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Locations 387-388 giving someone money or things without addressing the other deficits would almost certainly be doomed to failure.

Or, to give another example, when Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe poverty, they look at the ‘brokenness’ of four key relationships. These are the relationships between us and God, us and the rest of creation, us and others, and us and ourselves. The brokenness of these foundational relationships leads to different kinds of poverty that affect our economic, social, religious, and political systems. In addition to material poverty – the kind of poverty we usually think of when we think about poverty – there is poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of stewardship, poverty of community, and poverty of being. All of these latter forms of poverty affect everyone: we are all poor.4Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 58-61 Of course, this means that we can’t address material poverty alone. In fact, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”5Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 61

How we define a problem affects the kinds of solutions we look for. Corbett and Fikkert actually point this out: If we define poverty as a lack of knowledge, we’ll try to educate the poor; if we define it as oppression by the powerful, we’ll work for social justice; if we define it as the result of the personal sins of the poor, we’ll attempt to get them to repent; and so on.6Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 52 And if those who are making a case against poverty are right – and poverty is something different than not having enough money – then they’re also right that traditional charity can’t be the right approach to solving the problem. At least, it can’t be the sole approach.

But that leads to a question. Is the idea that we need to reform if not abandon charity the result of coming up with a better definition of poverty? Or is the more expansive definition of charity – a definition that all but demands the reformation of charity – the result of a desire to reform if not abandon charity? In other words, what comes first: the way we define the problem or the solution we favor?

I suspect it’s a mix, and individual to each author who chooses to make a case against traditional charity. But it’s also something we need to look out for. When we – as individuals, as congregations, as organizations, and so on – start rethinking our definitions of poverty, are we doing that because we’ve actually come to a better understanding of poverty or because we’re looking for a justification for moving away from charity?

As for me, I think that poverty is related to a whole host of other social problems in very complex ways. Poverty is related to racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and so on. It’s not separable from those things. But I also think that when we talk about poverty we aren’t trying to talk about the entire network of social problems. We’re trying to talk about a single aspect: not having enough money.

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