In the 1990s, the World Bank surveyed over sixty thousand of the financially poor throughout the developing world and asked how they described poverty.
What surprised me was that the poor didn’t focus on their material need. Rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty.
Analyzing the study, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development said,
Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.
The study highlights that by nature poverty is innately social and psychological.
In an informal survey, our clients at HOPE International in Rwanda affirmed that poverty is more than a lack of material possessions: In 2011, a lead trainer of a savings program in Rwanda posed a question to a group of twenty individuals within a savings group. Most of these individuals lived on less than two dollars a day.
“How do you define poverty?” he asked.
Below are their answers in the order provided. I hope they’re as eye-opening for you as they were for me:
- Poverty is an empty heart.
- Not knowing your abilities and strengths.
- Not being able to make progress.
- No hope or belief in yourself. Knowing you can’t take care of your family.
- Broken relationships.
- Not knowing God.
- Not having basic things to eat. Not having money.
- Poverty is a consequence of not sharing.
- Lack of good thoughts.
Money was only mentioned once.
Moving Beyond the Strictly Material
If poverty is not only a material deficit, but also not knowing one’s potential, abilities, and strengths—as well as having an empty heart—then traditional charity neglects to address the root causes of poverty.
Handouts will never enable individuals to recognize their abilities, maximize their potential, or believe their situation will ever change.
Unintentionally, aid can leave people still caught in despair, hopeless, and powerless.
The downward spiral of charity has been experienced by countless people eager to do good and serve the poor, but it is best described in Toxic Charity by author Bob Lupton. In this book, he details the negative cycle of giving related to traditional charity.
- Give once and you elicit appreciation.
- Give twice and you create anticipation.
- Give three times and you create expectation.
- Give four times and it becomes entitlement.
- Give five times and you establish dependency.
Offered with compassion, traditional charity can often enslave individuals in poverty.
Though a temporary fix, long-term aid can be a poverty trap. Instead of focusing on the potential of those like Fadzai, whose story I shared last week, charity cheats them of using their God-given abilities and talents. The Church is beginning to recognize the pitfalls of traditional charity and rediscover an alternative way of helping.
How can we, as members of the Church, prevent others from thinking of poverty as strictly material?
Leave your comments here.
Editor’s note: This is a continuation of our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, which is available for pre-sale here. This post was adapted from Peter Greer’s chapter entitled, “‘Stop Helping Us:’ A Call to Compassionately Move beyond Charity.”
- Part 1: For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty
- Part 2: Who Are The Rich & The Poor?
- Part 3: What Does It Mean to Help the Poor?
- Part 4: How Should the Church Help the Poor?
- Part 5: Four Principles of Poverty Alleviation
- Part 6: What Does the Old Testament Says About Poverty and Riches?
- Part 7: Ancient Rome, Mosaic Law, and Poverty Relief
- Part 8: The Church’s Role in Poverty Alleviation
- Part 9: The Causes of Poverty in the New Testament
- Part 10: Sin: The Root Cause of Poverty
- Part 11: What Can the New Testament Teach Us About Fighting Poverty?
- Part 12: What the Five Myths of Jubilee Mean for Poverty
- Part 13: Acts 2-5 and Poverty
- Part 14: Christian History’s Radical Approach to Poverty
- Part 15: Two Proven Ideas to Help the Poor
- Part 16: Critiques of Market-Based Poverty Alleviation
- Part 17: Why Income Inequality Has Little to Do with Poverty
- Part 18: When Income Inequality Is – and Isn’t – a Problem
- Part 19: Freedom – A Poverty Program That Worked?
- Part 20: One Woman’s Journey from Welfare to Work
- Part 21: Charity – An Insufficient Conclusion?
- Part 22: How People Who Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day Taught Me to Redefine Poverty
- Part 23: Why A Ukrainian Church Turned Down American Aid
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