Increased attention is being paid to alleviating poverty. And yet, if we want to truly help people, we have to identify the heart of the problem and offer solutions that work. Here are two big misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Poverty Is about a Lack of Money
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that poverty is primarily about a lack of having things. In their book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert observe, “North American Christians need to overcome the materialism of Western culture and see poverty in more relational terms” (p. 64).
Think about it: When you hear of people in poverty, do you tend to focus on physical things they lack, such as food, clothes, running water, housing, and medicine? Or do you think in terms of shame, powerlessness, depression, and hopelessness, which are what low-income people often feel? Chances are you think in material terms. But is lacking material goods at the heart of poverty?
What if poverty is more complex than merely lacking things? For instance, African American scholar Cornel West believes the basic issue behind ghetto poverty is a “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair” in Black America today.[i] While there is an economic dimension to poverty in the ghettos, according to West, the feelings of despair and hopelessness are core factors as well.
Ultimately, poverty stems not just from a lack of things but from broken relationships with God, others, and the self. Thus, if we want to address poverty, we have to be willing to help people cultivate a proper understanding of their own worth and develop healthy relationships with God and others. When people have healthy relationships, they are in a better position to experience the dignity that comes from working and supporting themselves and their families.
Can you see why effective help for the poor must involve more than simply meeting their material needs? The Los Angeles Union Rescue Mission is a great model of holistic care for those in poverty. It offers people food, shelter, clothes, and safety. But they also offer people life skills and opportunities to build relationships with others so they can develop as whole people.
Misconception #2: Good Intentions Are Enough
There is another huge misconception about poverty: good intentions are enough. People often have the right motives to help the poor, but their methods end up bringing harm. The right desire to help the poor is, for example, what motivates many people to embrace socialism, the form of government in which society as a whole owns the means of production. Like the legend of Robin Hood, socialist politicians promise to redistribute wealth to the needy.
As appealing as socialism may sound, such systems have consistently failed to actually help the poor and, in many cases, have harmed them. Philosopher Paul Copan observes, “The only cases where the world’s masses have escaped grinding poverty—most accurately measured by increased income per person—is through the twin conditions of free markets and the enforcement of the rule of law.”[ii] Even though capitalism has flaws, it is the best system for helping masses of people escape poverty. Socialism consistently fails in this regard.
The misconception about good intentions also applies on a personal level. Should you give to a person asking for money? Personally, I often do two things when I see someone asking for money. First, I stop and talk to the person. I want them to know I see them and care. Second, while I rarely give money, I often offer to buy the person a drink or a meal. And if I have time and they are open to it, I might sit down and enjoy the meal with them.
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[i] Cornel West, Race Matters, 25th Anniversary edition with new introduction (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 12.
[ii] Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 466.