Public Square

How People Who Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day Taught Me to Redefine Poverty


In the 1990s, the World Bank surveyed over sixty thousand of the financially poor throughout the developing world and asked how they described poverty.

What surprised me was that the poor didn’t focus on their material need. Rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty.

Analyzing the study, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development said,

Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.

The study highlights that by nature poverty is innately social and psychological.

Redefining Poverty

In an informal survey, our clients at HOPE International in Rwanda affirmed that poverty is more than a lack of material possessions: In 2011, a lead trainer of a savings program in Rwanda posed a question to a group of twenty individuals within a savings group. Most  of these individuals lived on less than two dollars a day.

“How do you define poverty?” he asked.

Below are their answers in the order provided. I hope they’re as eye-opening for you as they were for me:

  • Poverty is an empty heart.
  • Not knowing your abilities and strengths.
  • Not being able to make progress.
  • Isolation.
  • No hope or belief in yourself. Knowing you can’t take care of your family.
  • Broken relationships.
  • Not knowing God.
  • Not having basic things to eat. Not having money.
  • Poverty is a consequence of not sharing.
  • Lack of good thoughts.

Money was only mentioned once.

Moving Beyond the Strictly Material

If poverty is not only a material deficit, but also not knowing one’s potential, abilities, and strengths—as well as having an empty heart—then traditional charity neglects to address the root causes of poverty.

Handouts will never enable individuals to recognize their abilities, maximize their potential, or believe their situation will ever change.

Unintentionally, aid can leave people still caught in despair, hopeless, and powerless.

The downward spiral of charity has been experienced by countless people eager to do good and serve the poor, but it is best described in Toxic Charity by author Bob Lupton. In this book, he details the negative cycle of giving related to traditional charity.

  • Give once and you elicit appreciation.
  • Give twice and you create anticipation.
  • Give three times and you create expectation.
  • Give four times and it becomes entitlement.
  • Give five times and you establish dependency.

Offered with compassion, traditional charity can often enslave individuals in poverty.

Though a temporary fix, long-term aid can be a poverty trap. Instead of focusing on the potential of those like Fadzai, whose story I shared last week, charity cheats them of using their God-given abilities and talents. The Church is beginning to recognize the pitfalls of traditional charity and rediscover an alternative way of helping.

How can we, as members of the Church, prevent others from thinking of poverty as strictly material?

Leave your comments here

Editor’s note: This is a continuation of our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, which is available for pre-sale here. This post was adapted from Peter Greer’s chapter entitled, “‘Stop Helping Us:’ A Call to Compassionately Move beyond Charity.”

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