Social Ethics

Thinking Biblically about Poverty, Part 2: Why are the Poor Poor?


If the cultural indicators are to be believed, the plight of world’s poor has become a topic of great interest in the west and America in particular. Advertising by non-profits abounds, rivaled only by the conspicuous relief efforts of major corporations. Even our fashion trends reveal a fascination with poverty.1 Wealthy celebrities and middle income Americans alike pay extra money for clothes that appear to already be worn out. Young pastors sport bed-head hairdos2 and preach in outfits carefully engineered to look like they’ve been slept in for a couple of days. Faux poverty is in.

So do we Americans want to relieve poverty or just imitate it? One thing is clear: we do not really understand it, and evangelicals seem to be about as confused as the general population. Efforts to help can only go so far if we’re unclear about poverty’s true nature and causes, so we need a deeper understanding.

Part 1 of this series focused on the question, What is poverty? That essay stopped well short of fully answering its title question but emphasized the importance of distinguishing between relative poverty and absolute poverty. Here we’ll focus on another question. But since this question is so intertwined with the first, we’ll chip away a bit more at the “what” along with the “why.”

Why, then, are the poor poor? Or, more precisely, what causes the poor to be poor?3

A biblical survey

Scripture reveals a great deal about the causes of poverty. A brief survey is possible here. I’ll group the causes of poverty under three headings, disaster, oppression and character, then draw some concluding observations.

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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)

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