Poverty: You Can’t Solve a Problem You Don’t Understand

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article of a three-part series. Read part 2 and part 3.

Most economists agree: The wealth gap in America has been consistently growing since the 1980s. The National Bureau of Economic Research released numbers in 2016 that showed that the wealthiest in our society, the top 1%, earn an average of 1.3 million a year, and the bottom 50% of our citizens earn an average income of $16,000. In fact, within the five most populated states in our country (New York, California, Illinois, Texas, and Florida), 48% or more of the students enrolled in public school live in poverty. For the first time in American history more poor people live in suburbs than in cities.

And these changes aren’t just happening outside the walls of the church. Many members of our churches and neighbors in our communities have been impacted by this growing wealth gap. Whereas we have always been commissioned with the command to care for the poor among us, our strategies and awareness must change. This three-part series is an attempt to educate and equip the local church on how to love and serve the poor among us by answering three questions:

  • What is poverty?
  • Why do we care about developing a framework for understanding poverty?
  • How do we care for the poor?

Today we’ll be answering that first question, but stop by next week for future installments.

The church should run towards poverty-stricken people, not away from them.

What is Poverty?

Bryant Myers, author of Walking with the Poor, argues that the foundation of poverty can be seen in the brokenness of four vital relationships:

  • Relationship with God
  • Relationship with self
  • Relationship with others
  • Relationship with the rest of creation.

God established these four relationships in the Garden of Eden, but now that sin has entered into the world these four relationships have been tainted.

These relationships also have a close connection with the many systems of this world: economic, social, religious, political, etc. As a result, when our relationships are functioning properly, we can have a profound impact on our world’s systems. Unfortunately, the same can be said when our relationships are not functioning properly.

Myers writes,

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

If he is right, this reality should shake us to our core. Yet the church should also RUN towards poverty-stricken people, not away from them. After all, if God’s plan A for redemption this side of glory is the local church, bringing about shalom to broken parts of our society should be a natural outflow of the Christian life.

So what is poverty? For the purpose of this article and thinking about church ministry, I will combine Myers’s definition with another well-known researcher on poverty, Dr. Ruby Payne, to create the following as a working definition for poverty:

Due to the fall and our broken relationships with God, creation, others, and ourselves, poverty is the extent to which an individual’s resources are negatively impacted as a result of these broken relationships.

Dr. Payne argues that it’s important to note that poverty is a continuum and it is relative. And although poverty is typically thought of in terms of monetary resources, it’s much more complex than that. Payne’s research focuses on nine resources that assist her in identifying strengths and poverty deficits in students: Financial, Emotional, Mental/Cognitive, Spiritual, Physical, Support Systems, Relationships/Role Models, Knowledge of Hidden Rules, Language/Formal Register (To read more on these resources and Dr. Payne’s work clike here).

As believers, we know that because of sin entering the world, none of us have full access to all nine resources that Dr. Payne has listed. Each of us have deficits in some form or fashion. There isn’t a single person alive that isn’t plagued by a broken relationship, and yet there are those among us who have serious nutritional, emotional, educational, relational and material deficits due to poverty within their families. Rather than approaching poverty as an outside or other issue, we must approach it with humility while viewing it as a varying spectrum that all of us are a part of.

Many well intentioned pastors, teachers and youth leaders have a soft heart towards poverty. That is a good and holy thing. And yet, you can’t be a part of a solution for a problem you don’t understand. We have to be better at listening, learning, and then running towards the problem beside fellow journeyers, rather than striving to be the person with all the right strategies and answers.

With the fall as a foundation for a framework for the existence of poverty, a Christian minister in any field of work can identify and recognize deficits within their own communities, and then work towards developing strategies alongside those in poverty that bring shalom to relationships and champion the redemptive work of Christ to any limited or withheld resource.

After all, as Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert frequently states in their book, When Helping Hurts, working with the poor is the ministry of reconciliation. And this ministry of reconciliation, bringing shalom to depleted resources, is one of our highest callings.

Author’s Note: Because I am a book lover, I wanted to share a few additional resources with you for you to pick up and read if you’re interested in learning more about a Christian response to poverty.

Chester, T. (2013). Good News for the Poor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Corbett, S., & Fikkert, B. (2012). When Helping Hurts. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

Myers, B. (1999). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, Eval Press.

Payne, R. (2013). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process Inc.

Platt, D. (2010). Radical. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books.

Sider, R. (2005). Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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  • economics
  • poverty alleviation strategies
  • wealth and poverty
Brittany Salmon

Brittany Salmon is a professor, writer, and Bible teacher who’s pursuing her doctorate from Southeastern Seminary. She lives in Abilene, Texas with her husband and four children, and she has an upcoming book on adoption titled, 'It Takes More than Love: A Christian Guide to Navigating the Complexities of Cross-Cultural Adoption.'

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