Economics 101

Concern for the Poor Involves Considering the True Nature of Poverty

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No one of goodwill is unconcerned about poverty. When we see poor people struggling in life we all instantly sympathize with their plight. We are also moved with a desire to do something about the situation. At first blush it seems like something that can be directly addressed. After all, poverty is simply the lack of resources for daily life. Thus, we are most likely to think that the solution to the problem is to simply give money to those who are impoverished.

However, before we race to such a conclusion we ought to consider the nature of poverty a bit more thoughtfully. Poverty is a symptom or a signal. It is not a thing and it is not evil in and of itself. It is to be compared to hunger which is a signal to us that we need to secure food to feed our bodies. Likewise, poverty is a lack of the means needed to successfully achieve our ends. At the limit, it is a lack of resources so severe that we are unable to adequately provide for ourselves and sustain our existence. There are many reasons why someone is poverty stricken. The lack of resources is merely the evidence of poverty but not the reason for it.

Consider for a moment some of the many reasons why people might find themselves in poverty. Some people fall into poverty because they lack the skills needed to be productive enough to provide adequately for themselves. Truthfully, we all begin life in this condition and slowly acquire various skills and develop our various talents over time to increase our own productivity. So the answer to poverty here is that we need to improve the person’s ability to produce goods valued by others.

Other people are poor because they are simply unable for some reason to attain sufficient productive abilities to provide for themselves. There have always been unfortunate disabilities that have befallen various people among us such that they could not live independently. These physical and mental disabilities plagued many people around us. In these cases some level of ongoing help will be the answer to the problem of poverty for people in this condition.

Some people are poor because of some unforeseen disaster. To be sure all manner of natural and manmade disasters occur yearly that plunge unsuspecting victims into hard times and poverty. When these events occur the answer is to provide restoration to the individual’s former condition or at least to a place of personal independence. The small likelihood of such events is the reason why private insurance developed and why its purchase can go a long way to providing a remedy to such situations.

Finally, some people are poor because of their own poor choices. These choices range from drug and alcohol abuse to simply laziness and sloth. Providing money and other resources to such individuals will only worsen the situation. The answer to poverty for these people must be to overcome the poor choice if the person is to be lifted out of poverty.

There is an important point to be made. Since there are many reasons why a person might be impoverished, there is no one way to help lift people out of poverty. Each situation is different and if we are to act to help we must correctly assess the reason for the poverty and devise a plan for addressing that particular situation. Simply doling out money and resources is not going to be an effective strategy.

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  • Pete Smith

    Thank you for addressing poverty. Something connected to either or both of the first two reasons listed is oppression. People may lack skills and the means to attain them or other needed capital because of systemic oppression. Consider racism, political oppression, sexism, etc. Sin infects whole systems and those systems often take advantage of others. Related to the last reason is someone else’s poor choices. I have seen homeless infants who are homeless due to the poor choices of parents. Some are victimized by others and by decisions beyond their control.
    Thank you, again for addressing this important issue.

  • Stephen

    And some people might actively choose poverty. I doubt St. Francis would fit into one of your categories. The Buddha also walked away from his kingdom….

  • Tom

    From statistical evidence, by far the greatest influence on poverty on a person, family and child is the lack of a father in the home.

    It is overwhelming. Just look at where the systematic cycle of poverty exists and you will see single mother homes where the goverment has replaced the father.

    We as a nation should be addressing how do we reaffirm a two parent household…. rather Tha celebrating single motherhood….

  • RAPrice

    Early environmental factors also affect one’s choices, for good or ill. A child growing up in a poor neighborhood, with poor parents and low functioning schools, will most likely be a poor reader. As a consequence, she will lack the skills needed to provide a work product valuable enough to lift herself out of poverty. (Exceptions exist, of course, notable because they are so few.) Additionally, wisdom & moral training are likely to be deficient, resulting in yet another set of negative consequences.
    As Pete said earlier in reply, “Sin infects whole systems.” I would add, “even in the absence of active oppression.” Yes, that child, when she becomes a teenager, will likely make poor choices that ensnare her in poverty. Yes, she is responsible for those poor choices, but to what extent?
    Agreed, social responsibility is poorly fulfilled by simply extending hand outs. Yes, careful attention to causes and effective solutions is required. The Chalmers Center has some great resources in this regard.
    While you are probably not implying, much less asserting, “Their poor choices absolve me of responsibility,” others clearly do. But no where can I find in all of this justification for my sin of indifference. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49).
    I also thank you for addressing this issue.

    • Thank you SO much for Ezek 16:49, that made my day.

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