Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What is Poverty?

Guess how long it took me to read When Helping Hurts, chapter 2? Three weeks.


That is my life now. One chapter stretches out interminably as I grab two paragraphs at a time and then life snatches me away again.

I wanted to address the intro question: What is poverty?

I sat and thought about that before I started the chapter. I don't think poverty is completely defined by not having enough money. I'd say it is the inability to meet basic needs. The inability to get food, clean water, shelter, basic medical care.... all of these things mean someone is in poverty on some level. Having money often but not always enables access to these things.

The trouble is that the scale is always different. Whenever people quote stats about how many people around the world live on less than a dollar a day, I'm a little sceptical because there are many places in the world where a dollar a day buys you food and shelter and all your basic needs. I don't feel like we need to elevate everyone to live like the US - we are spoiled over here.

However, that definition is why I think there are plenty of people in the West and specifically the USA who are in poverty despite making so much more money than countries where the GDP is low. US society requires so many things - you can't just pay for four walls and a roof and a loaf of bread. Whether you rent or buy, housing is EXPENSIVE, and you simply must have electric, gas, water, and trash. You pretty much can't live without a phone (even newly arrived refugees have to get phones in order to communicate with employers). In a lot of cities, there's not even a public transport system so you also have to have a car in order to be an employed person... and a car means car insurance. And you have to have health insurance.

Bang. I just described my budget, plus internet and the luxury of eating out once a week and getting netflix delivered to our door. It's amazing how much is required in our society. Do we NEED all of that? No. But you always aren't really allowed to be a functional human being in our society without those things (meaning the former paragraph, not my netflix account!).

So - if you lose your job in the West, you can quickly lose all other things quite quickly. In other countries other needs might be harder to meet but in many places you'll be able to continue to grow your own food and live in your own house long after you've lost access to a job.

The deepest of poverty are those who can't meet any of their needs.

This chapter was great, by the way. I loved the description of the our comprehensive brokenness, and the recognition that any poverty-alleviation efforts that misunderstand or don't address the whole person and community will fail... very challenging.

I also really loved when they described how many charity efforts can just deepen poverty when we invest in a charitable projects as a part of our own god-complexes.

"For many of us North Americans the first step on overcoming our god-complexes is to repent of the health and wealth gospel. At its core, the health and wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth....at some level I had implicitly assumed that my economic superiority goes hand in hand with my spiritual superiority."

When I worked for a company in Chicago, the company took great pride in their charity work. There were many times that I went with our office to some sort of charity day, whether it was a breast cancer walk or a day at the children's hospital or throwing events at a local orphanage. I was always conflicted about these days because it felt like we always left feeling SO good about ourselves and sort of sweetly sad about the poor people we'd interacted with. I always questioned - is our work any good at all when the motivation is really to make ourselves feel good about all the good we've done? Surely our resources are still a blessing, but gosh there's still a wall of separation between our lives and those we've interacted with.

That's why the people whose work I most respect have often lost the perspective of seeing themselves as doing charity work. I was at a meeting of a bunch of refugee ministries here in Dallas as they addressed how to comprehensively meet the needs of refugees. They brought in one refugee who'd been in the US for many years now and is a leader in his community. When they asked him what the refugees needed most from Dallasites, he said - your time. He said they most needed people to simply be their friends and walk beside them as they adjusted to the US. I know three families that have moved into the middle of the low-income complexes that house refugees and immigrants. One in Georgia, one in Chicago, one in Indiana. They live among them. That side-by-side ministry is the most powerful of all. Check out Ian and Ruthie here: http://refugeearts.blogspot.com/

Anyways. Great stuff, lots to continue thinking about. I think I may take some time to write simply about the poverty I've encountered around the world and in the US.


Jaimie said...

Speaking of pride, I am recently unemployed and am having trouble backing out of my missions giving. I give $80/month that I'd rather take a break from (since I have no income right now), but ack, it makes me feel like a loser. It's actually pretty enlightening as to WHY I give... apparently it's a pride thing.

I love that part in Slumdog Millionaire where the Americans have their tires stolen and the little kid guiding them gets beat up. "You wanted to see a part of the real India? Here it is," the kid says, pointing at his face. And the American lady's like, "Well, we'll just show you a part of the real America," and gestures to her husband to give the kid money.

Matt Shedd said...

Great thoughts! My church works with a homeless shelter in Springfield, IL that has a great definition of homelessness, and the real causes of homelessness on its webpage. It is not as simple as it may seem!

Check them out: http://www.innercitymission.net/AboutHomelessness/tabid/57/Default.aspx