Myths about Poverty – #1

Poverty is a horrible phenomenon at every level.  It sucks the life out of people – emotionally, physically, economically, socially, spiritually, and too often even physically.

It is also a complicated reality – a reality that needs to be addressed, but with thought and care.

I do not consider myself any type of expert in poverty.  I did not grow up in poverty and I will never fully understand the weightiness of living under the pressure of poverty.  But as a theologian and practitioner I care a lot about what the Bible says about both why we should address poverty and how to do so.  In the next two posts I will look at two of the common myths associated with poverty (typically by those outside of it). The first myth has to do with the origins of poverty.

Myth 1: Most people in poverty got there because of bad choices or poor decisions

This viewpoint, or some variation of it, is a commonly held perspective.  But does it match up with how the Bible describes poverty?  Consider the following verse:

“The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor.” (Proverbs 10.15)

What first jumps out from this verse is the word ‘ruin.’  It is a really strong word, and in many versions is actually translated ‘destruction.’  It is also a common word in the Old Testament, and is almost always associated with the destruction that comes from personal sin.  When someone disobeys God’s law and pursues life and wisdom outside of God’s truth, the Bible usually draws a cause and affect relationship between those sins and destruction/ruin.

The one glaring exception is when it comes to how the OT describes poverty.  You often find verses like this.  Whereas personal sin is often the ruin of someone, when it comes to the poor often “poverty is the ruin of the poor.”  The Bible talks about poverty and those affected by it over 200 times in the OT alone.  And while you can find a reference here and there of those that have squandered opportunity through irresponsibility, the reality is that less than 10% of the references point to that as the cause.

Does this suggest that God does not care about the personal sins of the poor?  Or that bad choices and poor decisions don’t factor into someone’s condition?  Of course not.  God hates sin of every form and variety, and clearly bad choices and poor decisions will only exasperate a bad situation.

Instead, this verse negates the myth that so many hold as to the cause of poverty. Theologically speaking, bad choices and poor decisions play a part, but personal sin is generally a response to poverty, not a cause.  Sociologically speaking, we seem to discover the same truth.  Rarely do you find poverty in either a global or local context that is primarily a result of individual bad choices.  The vast majority of the time poverty is a result of far greater generational forces and even systemic injustice.

This simple but multifaceted verse gives a great snapshot of one of the important contrasts between poverty and wealth.

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city…”   In contrast to poverty, the rich not only have riches, but have a wealth that is rarely appreciated in that they can fortify their riches.  You see this everywhere you find pockets of wealth.  Where there is money, there tends to be a convergence of positive forces: good schools, nice parks, safe streets, affordable homes, access to capital, good jobs, and police protection.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is often an unseen force that aids the development and protection of the young ones that grow up around it.

“But poverty is the ruin of the poor.” As opposed to the ‘fortified city’ of the rich, this conversion of forces creates what often seems to be an inescapable net of poverty.  This poverty ultimately brings ruin to the poor.  More on this phenomenon in the next post…

4 responses to “Myths about Poverty – #1”

  1. A well written and thought provoking post. I’m interested to see where you go with this. It is, in some respects, the theological equivalent to the nature versus nurture argument (though not entirely). The rich have their “fortified city.” They are, in this respect, embalmed by the very best (at least materially) of what the world has to offer. The poor, in contrast, are often surrounded in (and therefore defined by) ruin. A very vivid, stark mental image. Thanks for the post.

  2. Well said Michael! Now we have to figure out how to get you back over here in Chicago to help us fight poverty =)

  3. You touched on poverty being a outcome generational forces, and that it is, I believe, generations of greed.

  4. I like what you have written so far. However I agree with the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you have fed him, teach him to fish and he can feed himself and others.” Our job is not to throw him something and go on, our job is to help him/her out of his destitute condition and into a productive human being.

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