Myths about poverty – #2

If the first myth about poverty is in relation to its cause (see last post), then the second myth about poverty would be in relation to how someone gets out of it.  This myth is a corollary of the first, as well as how the Bible would respond to it.

Myth 2: Most people could lift themselves out of poverty if they work hard and take advantage of their opportunities

This belief is held so strongly that we have developed a colloquial way to describe it: “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” We don’t know the origin of that phrase, but it is used in popular vernacular to describe the rags to riches stories of those who moved from the bottom of society to the top through ingenuity and hard work.

But does that match how the Bible describes poverty?  Consider the following Proverb:

“A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” (Proverbs 13.23)

For me, this verse points to what makes poverty such a terrifying reality for many people.  As discussed in the last post, not only does someone usually get sucked into poverty by forces greater than themselves – once they are caught in the net of poverty it seems impossible to get out.

I could tell many personal stories of people who are working three jobs and wish more than anything that they could lift they and their families out of poverty.  But it seems for so many of them that for every positive step they take forward, two or three bad things happen to thwart their attempts.

We have a couple of good analogies for poverty in the realm of nature: riptide and tailspin.  Riptide is a stretch of turbulent water in a river or the sea that is caused by one current flowing into or across another current.  Even the most experienced swimmer has trouble surviving this.  In the air it is called a tailspin.  When a plan gets caught in a rapid, uncontrollable descent from wind currents crossing over and through each other it requires a miraculous series of events to survive. (We could use a whirlpool and maelstrom to make the same point)

Does this mean that someone cannot overcome poverty, or that hard work and opportunistic actions are unimportant? No and no.  In fact, far from it. Hard work matters a lot. Making good choices can be the difference between life and death. Seizing windows of opportunity is critical. There are many amazing stories of people who have lifted themselves out of poverty with some combination of these, and the stories of those who have overcome are worth telling.

The problem is that these stories often reenforce the very myth they should be breaking.  For those of us who don’t fully understand the death grip of poverty, these stories should serve as a parable.  They should serve as an opportunity for us to peer inside the true nature of poverty and to gasp at the combination of negative forces that converge there.  We should then celebrate and even be in awe of the fact that someone was able to survive the riptide and come out on the other side to tell about it.

Instead, I am afraid we make a mistake and allow those success stories to fortify the very myth we are trying to break. We hear of someone who has overcome and we make their story normative.  Our suspicions about poverty are strengthened. We say (or think), “If other people would take advantage of opportunity like this person did, they too would get out of poverty as well.” Instead of holding up this person as an example of what can happen when God strengthens a resilient soul and brings the right people around, we hold them up as another reason to believe that poor people don’t do enough to fix their condition. The myth becomes only more ingrained in our ways of thinking about poverty.

I would propose that instead we would use verses like this Proverb to guide our thinking: “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” This would help us to remember that while personal choices matter a great deal, they are not the only force at work in impoverished situations. “Injustice sweeps it away.” There are always forces of injustice at work where poverty thrives, and those of us who know God must deeply concerned about those forces.

So to those of you who are caught up in the net of poverty, my heart goes out to you. I lament the many obstacles you have to overcome, and apologize that the judgments of people like me that are outside of poverty contribute to the obstacles.

To those who have overcome, we acknowledge and see the significance of what that represents.  We thank God that through discipline, diligence, opportunism, hard work, and the support of God-sent angels you were able to break out of the riptide of poverty.

And to those of us who experience one of the greatest privileges on earth –  to be economically self-sufficient – let us continue to grow in knowledge, wisdom, compassion, concern and action. Justice is close to the heart of God, and injustice is a direct affront to the character of God. If you want to know that your heart is breaking for the same things that breaks God’s heart, then get near to poverty. Learn the stories of people and love the people. Don’t settle for simple answers. Study how it is that injustice has swept away many of their dreams and opportunities. Celebrate everyone who makes progress. And together let us continue to fight for a more just society and equal playing field so that all of God’s children can reach their redemptive potential.

4 responses to “Myths about poverty – #2”

  1. I guess I need to know what your definition of injustice and obstacles are. To me, poverty comes down to one simple fact. You are living outside of your means. You have made poor choices and continue to make poor choices (yes, playing the lottery is a poor choice). You need to know your income, know what you can afford and make the tough decisions to live within your means.

    The only injustice of poverty is that people are not willing to change their lives and lifestyles to get out of it. This makes it difficult for me to “help” them because they are not really helping themselves. If I give a drug addict more drugs how is that helping them break the addiction? If i continue to give hand outs to people in poverty am I not continuing to build up their reliance on hand outs?

    Is there an easy answer to the poverty question? No. My answer would start with a sit down and a realistic look at their lifestyle and their income. If they understand the finances of their life, then I truly believe that they can “pull themselves up by their boot straps” even if it takes a little help from some friends.

  2. Bryan, you raise complicated but important distinctions between individual sin and corporate sin. Is living outside of your means a bad decision, and even a sin? Yes. It is wrong for someone to do that whether they live in poverty or whether they live in wealth. Is drug or any type of substance use/abuse wrong and even a sin? Yes, for those in poverty and those in wealth.

    So I don’t think I or any other Christian practioner around poverty is advocating for us to minimize the impact of bad choices. Instead, we are calling on those who live in privilege to grow in awareness about how different the environment and world is in poverty vs. middle class. In poverty situations a kid goes to school where even if they do well they will still be terribly behind mainstream culture because the educational level is so bad. The impact of this on a child’s psyche cannot be overestimated. If you take a 16 year old in Hoffman Estates that has worked hard in school that most likely means his life trajectory points up and is going to have a wide option of schools to choose from. That same 16 year old in an inner city environment often has little chance to get accepted into any major university because of the school he attended, he has a lack of adults around him that have either gone to school or are encouraging him to go to school, and he has already seen more death, failure, and hopeless than any teenager should ever have to see.

    Up to this point NONE of this is his fault. Now, if he responds to his hopelessness by doing drugs or trying to make a fast buck in an underground way he needs to be responsible for the outcomes of his decisions. But for those of us who live in privileged circumstances to look at what happens next and simply judge the bad decisions without grieving over the lack of so many things that boy needed up to this point feels simplistic and naive – and based on my belief of the Scriptural mandate for justice i would go so far as to say it is actually sin (a sin i believe i have been guilty of most of my life).

    That is what i mean by justice. God has created every human being in his image, and we all deserve the opportunity to survive and thrive and grow into who God has created us to be. What’s more, God created the world with enough for everyone, so there shouldn’t be this extreme wealth at the expense of extreme poverty. We are the richest nation in the history of planet earth, and not only is there extreme poverty throughout the world, but 1 out of 5 children in this country live in suffocating poverty. I would say that is as unjust as unjust can get.

    Would love to hear your thoughts. To summarize, I agree that individual’s responses and choices must be taken into account. We should not dismiss or excuse poor choices. On the other hand, everyone that has been blessed by God with resources and networks should also bear a sense of responsibility for the ongoing structural inequalities that protect a legacy of poverty in so many of our communities. And we should not have realistic expectations that very many children raised under the weight of poverty are going to break the cycle if those inequalities are not addressed.

  3. If you wish to understand “but injustice sweeps it away”, study how our monetary system works and then study what the Bible has to say about honest measures and weights… Under our current system, it is the impoverished and those on fixed incomes that suffer the worst effects of the debasement of our currency.

    1. I forgot to include this. It is a great place to start if you want a clear explanation of what money is, where it comes from, how it works, and how our modern banking system works.

      What Has Government Done to Our Money? by Murray N. Rothbard

      (It is free and you can also download it as a PDF if you like).

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