Rethinking Poverty

by Ross Farley

Ross (Australia) is an educator and Bible teacher. He has decades of ministry experience with several organisations and churches, he has authored several books, and lectured in theological colleges and training programmes.

In Psalm 12:5, David wrote, ‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’ Psalm 10 observes powerful people trampling the poor. When Westerners describe poverty they focus on what people do not have. These psalms focus on how the poor are treated and challenge common perceptions that focus on material things. The poor lose out to the more powerful. Intentionally or not, other people contribute to their poverty.

In Psalm 10, the poor are described as hunted (v9), victims of greedy schemes (v2-3), lied about and threatened (v7), ambushed (v8), helpless, crushed, disempowered, afflicted and oppressed (v9-17), and trapped in bad relationships (v7-10). The powerful are described as proud (v4), greedy (v3), liars (v7), who think they are invincible (v6), unaccountable (v13), superior to others and entitled to behave as they want to. They do not believe that God will call them to account.

There are many causes of poverty. The Bible teaches that some are poor because they are foolish (Prv. 22:26) or lazy (Prv. 10:4, 14:23). However, when whole people groups live in poverty for generations, the issues in Psalm 10 are probably involved: greed, lies and oppression. The causes are not just economic, they are moral and spiritual.

Perceptions of Poverty in the Developed World

Our modern understanding of poverty emerged in the aftermath of World War II. Much of Europe was destroyed but had been rebuilt and was progressing. The idea developed that the same approach would work for the developing world, seeing the solution to poverty as giving people stuff. However, this did not produce the results it had in post-war Europe. Although the developing world had seen significant improvements, many serious problems remained. Some countries received considerable aid but deteriorated.

A turning point came in the 1990s with research conducted by the World Bank, entitled ‘Voices of the Poor’, which asked the poor themselves to define poverty. Over 60,000 of the world’s poorest people were surveyed, with surprising results. They found that ‘while the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition far more in…psychological and social terms. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.’ The poor were less concerned about material stuff and more concerned with how they were treated. When the poor were asked to describe poverty, they raised the same issues David wrote about in Psalm 10. Poverty is not about things but powerlessness.

What is Poverty?

There are two basic views: poverty as deficit versus poverty as disempowerment.

Poverty as Deficit

This view sees poverty as stuff that is missing. The poor do not have enough food or access to safe water, schools and healthcare. Of course, this is true as far as it goes: the poor do not have these things and people need them. However, this confuses the symptoms with the disease.

We need to ask, ‘Why don’t the poor have the stuff they need?’ The answers to that question will vary, but they are the sorts of things David wrote about in Psalm 10. Responses that do not address the underlying causes are inadequate. You can give people material things, but unless the reasons behind the poverty are addressed, they will soon be in the same position again.

Furthermore, if we see poverty as the absence of stuff, the solution is to provide what is missing and the poor are reduced to passive recipients. This demeans and devalues the poor, who are not seen as made in the image of God but as defective and inadequate. Sadly, our view of the poor as deficient can easily become their view of themselves. On the flip side we see ourselves as superior, perhaps even as saviours who save the poor with our wealth.

This promotes materialism and presents possessions as the solution to life’s problems. It is an approach that promotes unbiblical views of the poor, of us and material things.

You can give people material things, but unless the reasons behind the poverty are addressed, they will soon be in the same position again.

Poverty as Disempowerment

The poor are disempowered. They do not have what they need because they lose out to more powerful people and lack recourse to justice. The poor lack social power and are less able to resist unfair treatment by politicians, police, the courts, landowners and businesses. They become easy prey for companies who take their land for logging, mining or whatever, and they are less likely to receive proper compensation or income. The poor are often excluded from community decision-making and their voices are not heard.

The powerless are left to try to survive on the least productive lands, like flood plains, deserts or high-altitude mountains. As a result they have less income, poorer nutrition and are more prone to disasters. The urban poor often have to squat illegally on vacant land or under bridges and live with the constant threat of eviction. All this, along with poor health and hard labour, leads to reduced physical strength and mental capacity.

The poor are often oppressed by people with vested interests in maintaining low wages and other injustices. Oppression evokes images of guns and armed militants, but it can also be the work of accountants, lawyers, company boards and political rulers.

The instrument of disempowerment is lies. Psalm 10:7 says that lies are used as an instrument of oppression by the proud who believe they are entitled. Coveting Naboth’s vineyard, Ahab and Jezebel lied and used the legal system to make murder and theft appear legitimate (1 Kgs 21). Similarly, today lies depict particular people as sub-human to justify treating them inhumanely. Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil… he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). Oppression is ‘legitimised’ by lies and behind those are the forces of evil.

Lies are used to disempower the poor and, after years and generations, the poor still believe the lies. Bryant Myers wrote in Walking with the Poor, ‘A lifetime of suffering, deception, and exclusion is internalised by the poor in a way that results in the poor no longer knowing who they truly are or the purpose for which they were created. This is the deepest and most profound expression of poverty. The poor come to believe that they are and were always meant to be without value and without contribution.’ The poor have a distorted sense of who they are. They do not know they are made in the image of God and precious in God’s sight. Poverty denies the love and justice of God and His image in human beings. At the root of poverty are moral and spiritual issues.

Responding to Poverty

If poverty is disempowerment, the solution is empowerment. The goal is for people to earn all they need through their own efforts and not be dependent on handouts. Little of that involves giving things. For example, they might be given goats, but this should always be in the context of rearing and training, aimed at setting people up in their own businesses. That changes the way the poor think of themselves. Empowerment heals the marred identity of the poor. Just giving stuff reinforces that they are deficient.

I asked a group of project participants in Bangladesh how their lives had changed as a result of the project. They had all established their own businesses. They said little about stuff, even though they had much more than they did before, but listed over 20 ways their lives had been empowered. Then one man said, ‘We now have dignity.’ Their marred identity is being healed.

What Can We Do?

In the Psalms, David calls on powerful people to treat the poor differently than the world does. As Christians we can show them that they are made in God’s image and are therefore valued. We can advocate on their behalf and empower people trapped in poverty with the truth of His Word. Psalms 10 and 12 are prayers in which David calls on God to protect the poor and disempower those who oppress them. Only God can save from evil, so we need to pray.

Adapted from an article first published in Serving Together, February 2020, p12.
Tearfund Australia: All photos: Tearfund Australia

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