Thinking Biblically about Poverty, Part 1: What is Poverty?

poor boy

Why are the poor poor?

It seems few are asking this question anymore—just when we need most to be asking it, just when interest in helping the poor has apparently reached an all time high.

I don’t recall ever hearing and seeing so many radio and TV ads for charitable causes, donation displays at retailers’ cash registers, or businesses prominently displaying how they’re helping the needy (or how they’re saving the world from environmental catastrophe—or both).

Evangelicals seem to be giving poverty more attention as well—in increasingly passionate terms and from quarters not historically known for that emphasis. Witness this observation from Southern Baptist, David Platt:

Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry…. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here….

This is not what the people of God do. Regardless of what we say or sing or study on Sunday morning, rich people who neglect the poor are not the people of God. (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, p.115)

Unexamined assumptions

Sadly, much of our society’s rhetoric (and evangelical rhetoric as well) reflects unexamined assumptions. Many assume that as long as someone does not have, it’s wrong for anyone to have (or at least wrong for them to keep what they have). A close cousin to that assumption is the idea that one person’s having prevents another from having—have-nots are created by haves who have too much. These assumptions lead, in turn, to the Big One—a granddaddy assumption about how to help the have-nots: help must involve the haves parting with some, or a whole lot, of what they have. The problem of poverty is solved by transferring wealth. It’s common knowledge.

But Christians know common knowledge is often wrong. Our responsibility—before acting in response to a social problem—is to thoughtfully consider its causes. So why are the poor, poor? When we understand this, we are ready to ask how we can help.

Pondering the question of what causes poverty leads quickly to a problem, though. People do not consistently mean the same thing when they use terms like “poverty” and “the poor.” So if we’re going to think clearly about why the poor are poor, we’re going to have to arrive first at some clarity about what “poverty” is.

Poverty in the Bible

The OT has nearly a dozen words that are translated “poor.” The NT adds about another half dozen. Clearly poverty is all over the Bible. It’s a prominently featured human problem. It’s also a theologically loaded problem. Covenant blessings and curses are expressed in terms of abundance and destitution. Faithfulness is frequently connected with poverty and powerlessness while injustice and evil are often associated with the rich.

Giving proper weight to the contexts of these passages is a vital (yet often neglected) step in developing a biblical theology of poverty—as is properly relating the passages to one another. Look for some of that work in future installments in this series.

As for the key Hebrew and Greek terms, they vary in emphasis and connotation from affliction and humility to want, neediness, lowliness and lack of good quality to bad conditions, misery and powerlessness.

What the key words all have in common is the simple concept of lack. Something important is missing—occasionally something bad such as greed or pride but usually something needed and helpful.

Relative poverty

Consider an American family I’m well acquainted with. Let’s call them the Cleavers, a family of four. According to the 2010 Dept. of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines, the Cleavers’ income was above the “poverty line” in 2010, but not by much. After factoring in some tax advantages and fringe benefits, they were still below the average individual income for the year. So are the Cleavers poor?

It depends. In the US, “poverty” is measured by completely relative standards. Statistics like how much the average household spent on select goods and services in a given year (Consumer Price Index) are compared to average levels of income, and the government declares what it considers to be a normal standard of living. If you’re below it, you’re “poor.”

But the Cleaver family has two cars, a two-story house (rented), air conditioning, health insurance, a computer, a TV and a dog. Nobody goes hungry unless he just doesn’t like what’s on the table. Nobody is cold in the winter unless he leaves the house in a hurry and forgets his coat. They don’t have cable TV, but they do have high speed Internet and a couple of cell phones.

All the same, they are too poor to have much tax liability (if any) most years, and they receive money back from the IRS each year in the form of Earned Income Credit—a subsidy that is supposed to be for the working poor.

The point here is that whenever people look around and see that others have things they themselves can’t afford, they feel poor. That perceived poverty—along with various indexes based on averages—is relative poverty. Given how many in the world have only one set of clothes (badly worn), no healthcare at all, barely a meal a day, unsafe water, no access to education worthy of the name and nothing resembling decent sanitation, it’s worse than ridiculous to call the Cleavers (or any family with even half their income) “poor.”

Nonetheless, they are poorer than the average American family. This is “relative poverty.”

Absolute poverty

Jay W. Richards offers a helpful explanation of absolute poverty—in contrast to relative poverty—in Money, Greed and God. Speaking of those classified as poor by the U.S. Census Bureau, he writes:

Compared with the American upper class, these Americans are poor. But that’s still relative poverty: it’s defined by comparison with others rather than on an absolute scale. On the other hand, if someone’s starving to death or freezing to death from exposure because they can’t afford shelter, they’re suffering absolute poverty. (p.88)

Richards applauds increased attention to absolute poverty in recent years by organizations such as World Vision and the U.N. Millennium Campaign and cites heart-rending statistics, including these:

  • Six hundred million children live in absolute poverty.
  • Eight hundred million people go to bed hungry every day.
  • Every year more than 10 million children die of hunger and preventable diseases; that’s over thirty thousand per day, or one every three seconds.
  • Every year nearly 11 million children die before their fifth birthday. (pp. 88-89)

What poverty is

What do we mean by “poverty,” then? Sadly, it’s pretty routine for public officials and religious leaders to use absolute-poverty statistics to argue for relative poverty relief—without giving hearers (or readers) the barest hint that they’ve switched categories. Compounding the problem, discussions regarding how to help the poor often mix and match these categories as well. But where you have two fundamentally different sets of conditions, you probably have different causes and, therefore, different solutions. Helping relatively poor Americans obtain reliable transportation or better food is not the same thing as helping a starving family in Cambodia obtain a bowl of rice.

Christians who care about the suffering of the poor should care enough to do the brain work of clearly identifying what problem they are setting out to solve (or at least mitigate) as well as the work of identifying its true causes. And when we’re on the receiving end of “help the poor” rhetoric, we should rigorously question what sort of problem we’re really hearing about.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

One important point on this topic that I forgot to mention: it's also sadly common for folks to take Scripture portions about absolute poverty and apply them to modern, relative poverty. It's possible that this is a valid thing to do, but we need to make a case for that rather than assume it. I do think there are points of similarity between absolute poverty and relative poverty and in these cases what Scripture says about one it also says about the other.

Mike Durning's picture

Aaron,

All good points.
As a pastor of a church that invests much time, effort, and money in benevolence ministries, these issues are with us on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis. The other axis of decision-making in helping others is their own level of willingness to work toward financial stability.

There is a cultural element to poverty for some. Training the truly poor out of their culture of poverty is heart-breakingly difficult work. To the poor, money is for spending. To the middle-class, money is for managing. To the wealthy, money is for investing. This mindset compounds the tragedy of those who are truly and profoundly poor in America, as the failure to manage the little money they have compounds their plight. After a few requests, our benevolence committee frequently requires budget help, and possibly taking a course in budgeting.

From time to time, we have been forced to cut off families that refuse to act in any responsible fashion, not even taking the most rudimentary steps to work toward fixing their problem. The sad thing is that the children in such families are disproportionately hurt. In some cases, diapers and baby-wipes are the limits of the help given (knowing that the state will ensure food).

We struggle with these issues every week, but it's important to struggle, because there are strong Scriptural commands to help those in true need. Despite the complexities and even ambiguities of the issues involved, the one thing we cannot do is refuse to confront them and refuse all help.

Darren Mc's picture

Dealing with the poor is an interesting conundrum for the American church. We live in the first society in the history of mankind in which the poorest among us (relatively speaking, of course) are the most likely to be obese. Too many American churches, including many fundamental churches I know, have decided to scrap or de-emphasize their giving to the poor of their community, and instead focus the vast majority of their giving on overseas missions, where people are "really poor." I appreciate what Mike said above. The mission of the church to care for the poor has not changed. But the way we minister to them probably should change from a mere handout to developing the person to overcome their poverty.

No wisdom, no understanding, and no counsel will prevail against the LORD. Proverbs 21:30

Joel Shaffer's picture

In the book, "When Helping Hurts," the author distinguishes between 3 types of response: relief, rehabilitation, and development. The problem is that here in North America because poverty is primarily relative (there are exceptions, including disasters such as a person's house burning down as well as among the mentally ill homeless living underneath bridges that refuse to go to shelters because of their paranoia), often churches, non-profits, and the governments apply relief solutions (which help for the absolute poor) to rehabilitation and development problems for those trapped in chronic, relative poverty. Providing money and food for people that have alcohol and drug addictions isn't going to help, its only going to perpetuate the problem. Providing money and food for someone who is illiterate and needs to get their GED so that they can get into a higher pay scale of employment isn't going to make a permanent difference the way that teaching a person to read, then helping that person through with their GED tests, and then helping them with employment assistance (putting together a resume, and etc....) so that they can get a living wage type job.

Mike, It sounds like you are doing a great job because you have chosen to go deeper and figure out a proper diagnosis of the problem. You are right, that it ultimately hurts the kids the most. Our ministry also spends alot of time mentoring kids from single parent families so that they are around more positive Christian role models in their lives because many times the single mom is not around because they are either working overtime hours in order to make ends meet, or else they are modeling unhealthy, sinful choices. As for the fathers, they are usually absent. I have one student that I have been mentoring and discipling since he was 8 years old (he's now a college student), whose dad has fathered 25 kids from about 12 different women.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mike, sounds like you have some really good ideas there. I'm convinced that what really helps is being neglected because it doesn't make for warm, fuzzy sound bites or dramatic You Tube clips.
I do have one question, though... part of my research. Is it your impression that biblical commands to "help those in true need" (in ref. to poverty) are more prominent or more weighty than biblical commands to help those who are lost but doing fine financially? Also, what's your understanding of the scope of responsibility? David Platt argues passionately that each Christian should view his mission as personally global (and to him, mission cannot be separated from materially aiding the poor). What's your take on that?

[edit; oops. I guess that was more than "one question"! ]

A related question: in your view, how does responsibility to care for "a brother" in need relate to responsibility to a "neighbor" in need or "everybody" in need?

Joel, sounds like another book I need to read. Thanks

JobK's picture

Coming up with some all-encompassing theology that effectively deals with all possible situations and variables ... is there any area in Christian life where this is true? Take believers' baptism ... well the thief on the cross (almost certainly) never got baptised because he never had time or a chance (and the same is true of deathbed conversions).

It is best to keep it simple. The New Testament tells individual Christians to help the poor. And other than a few examples that were given in parables, sermons and narratives, it does not give us any details. (This is in contrast with the Old Testament, which laid out the blueprint for a social welfare/wealth redistribution system. As I am not strictly a covenant theology guy, I oppose using the Old Testament Israel theocracy as a model for any society since. I will say that it is curious how a lot of theological liberals have no problem finding economic principles from Old Testament Israel to apply to contemporary society but want nothing to do with the moral codes, and similarly how so many theological conservatives are much in favor of having modern society adhere to the Old Testament moral codes but want nothing to do with the economic ones. As the moral and economic codes for Old Testament Israel were actually a unity, part of a whole, keeping one while neglecting the other was worthless - or should I say that breaking one invariably led to breaking the other down the line - so the consistent view is to either advocate both, or to advocate neither, which is my position.)

So, Christians should pray - and often pray - on the charity issue, and then provide aid according to how God leads the Christian. This applies first to the pastors of local congregations when they lead their followers into charitable practices and projects, then to the husbands/fathers as they lead their households into the same, and then to the individual Christian. I live in an urban area, and there are plenty of beggars. There is no way to look at these people and tell which beggar is a guy raising money to buy drugs, and which beggar is a repentant prodigal son raising money to return to the house of his loving Christian parent. Even if you have been seeing this same drug-addled beggar in this same neighborhood for 20 years, there is no way to know when this particular beggar has had enough and will use the money not for crack or heroin but for bus fare to the treatment center downtown. Some beggars are looking for drugs, some are looking for people to rob, but some are just looking for a couple of dollars to buy a box of macaroni and cheese so their kids won't go to bed hungry at night and will be able to go to school tomorrow, and are counting on God to provide for the next day (yes, lots of the homeless folks in my area are Christians ... lots of area churches have thriving evangelistic/discipleship ministries among the homeless, and also because my area is among the national leaders in foreclosures, lots of Christians who were middle/working class a couple of years ago are now on skid row or on the streets, just as the same happened to a ton of hard working Christians with good values and monetary habits during the Great Depression). So, the only way to know WHICH beggar or bum or bag lady to help is to pray.

The same with sending money to charitable organizations. How do we know which charitable organization is corrupt? Which charitable organization has a high administrative overhead? Which charitable organizations fund activities that Christians - especially fundamentalists - disapprove of? This is the case for individual Christians and Christian households, and even more so for Christian pastors ... should a Christian pastor send church money to a charity (for example) helps rebuild third world Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches after fires/earthquakes/floods? And if this pastor does, should another pastor view this as a separation issue?

We can only wade through these complex issues with God guiding is. That is why we need to pray, and pray without ceasing.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Mike, sounds like you have some really good ideas there. I'm convinced that what really helps is being neglected because it doesn't make for warm, fuzzy sound bites or dramatic You Tube clips.
I do have one question, though... part of my research. Is it your impression that biblical commands to "help those in true need" (in ref. to poverty) are more prominent or more weighty than biblical commands to help those who are lost but doing fine financially? Also, what's your understanding of the scope of responsibility? David Platt argues passionately that each Christian should view his mission as personally global (and to him, mission cannot be separated from materially aiding the poor). What's your take on that?

...

A related question: in your view, how does responsibility to care for "a brother" in need relate to responsibility to a "neighbor" in need or "everybody" in need?

I recently blogged, very superficially, on St. Augustine's take on that issue, but I offer it to you as a starting point. http://sacredpage.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/whom-should-you-help/

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

driddick's picture

Aaron,

Great points. Like Mike mentioned above, I'm a part of a ministry that is heavily invested in ministry to the poor. We take different approaches to the "Absolute poor" and the "Relative poor."

The "Absolute poor" in our city would typically be described as homeless. We feed, shelter and clothe men, women and children 365 days a year through two different centers in the downtown area of our city. This ministry intersects a critical need in their lives with physical and spiritual resources. The proclamation of the Gospel is inter-connected at almost every point of this ministry.

The "Relative poor" we have approached entirely different. A few years ago, a neighborhood only a few miles from our campus began to deteriorate in rapid fashion. It was becoming the crime capital of our city. Drugs were rampant and the family unity was almost non-existent. The people in this neighborhood would almost entirely be classified as living below the poverty level, yet starvation or shelter or clothing were not the critical needs.

We took a "mentoring" approach in this neighborhood and began to care for fatherless children, assist single moms, run summer camps, etc. This ministry intersects a different, but critical, need in their lives. The proclamation of the Gospel is inter-connected at almost every point of this ministry.

I think you made a notable distinction in classifications of the poor. In my experience the distinction has impacted our methodology not the level of priority our congregation has placed on "the poor."

On a side note, I think in general, conservative theological churches resist these issues because of real doctrinal drifts that have historically taken place in connection with social justice.

I grew up in a conservative, theologically fundamental church of decent size and my only example of ministry to the poor was an unused tiny closet that we randomly put canned goods in. We may have been right in a lot of areas, but we missed or neglected the Bible's clear teaching about the poor.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

JobK wrote:
So, Christians should pray - and often pray - on the charity issue, and then provide aid according to how God leads the Christian.

JobK wrote:
So, the only way to know WHICH beggar or bum or bag lady to help is to pray.

JobK wrote:
We can only wade through these complex issues with God guiding is. That is why we need to pray, and pray without ceasing.

Sounds good. But it only works if you accept two premises:
1. God's Word is NOT sufficient to lead the Christian in all matters of faith and practice (as it claims and as most of our doctrinal statements affirm).

- and -

2. You believe in some kind of mystical, extra-biblical, individual revelation from God which is never seen, described, commanded, encouraged or directed in Scripture.

For the rest of us, we must continue to wrestle with the actual Word of God as Aaron has begun doing in this article.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Charlie: thanks, I'll check that out. But Augustine's a dead guy from before the dark ages. What could he know? Wink

JobK: on keep it simple (there is much more in your post worth responding to, but in a rush at present)... the automobile is not a simple thing, yet we are all glad somebody decided to get complicated. I don't see any virtue in making simple things messy, but if we can actually partially solve a problem--and it's a complex one--we shouldn't let it's complexity stop us. It's part of the image of God in us. Subdue the earth.

driddick... In this essay I'm mostly trying to define poverty itself as distinct from "the poor," but as you point out, they can't be completely separated. In part 2 or maybe part 3, I'll focus more on who the poor are because it's really the same thing as answering "why" they are poor. I'm still wrestling with how to understand homelessness because it's hard to find data that doesn't appear to have been intentionally crafted by an advocacy group of one sort or another (with a financing agenda to serve). So I don't know how many of the homeless are experiencing absolute poverty vs. choosing not to avail themselves of available housing options.

The essay on "why are the poor, poor/who are the poor" is an easy one, but figuring out who goes under what heading is not so easy.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
So I don't know how many of the homeless are experiencing absolute poverty vs. choosing not to avail themselves of available housing options.

Here is an article that will enlighten you to the situation of the mentally ill homeless.
http://www.servantscenter.org/article01.html

Also, check out the photo gallery on this web page (showing the absolute poverty that some homeless people live in). http://www.servantscenter.org/photo_gallery.html

This is from my former boss, Don Tack....the director of Servants Center. Don is connected with the IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America), having been a pastor for over a decade, a professor at Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music and Calvary Bible College for about a decade, and the director of Servants Center for almost 20 years. You are right that there are some advocacy groups that fudge numbers or refuse to gather certain data because it might change the status of their government money that they get every year..... But it doesn't mean that there aren't those who fit the description as being absolute poor or destitute poor. Between 1993-1995, a small part of my job with Servants Center (I also managed a homeless shelter for them) was discovering where certain homeless people were staying and connecting and building relationships of trust with them so that they could get help. Before this, I was skeptical of the authenticity of neurological brain diseases such as schizophrenia, but after meeting scores of mentally ill, paranoid people (such as a man that wore 12 hats on top of each other because he was afraid that his brain would fall out), I realized that this small segment of the population could not make choices for themselves the way that I could because their brain was broken.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joel, are you still w/Servants Center? (I think you posted about this before but I can't remember) and where do you currently do this kind of work? I might want to come take a tour or something like that, if it works out.

Ed Vasicek's picture

This is an amazing start, Aaron. I eagerly await your further installments. Top notch thinking.

"The Midrash Detective"

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