Three Kinds of Poverty

Poverty is usually thought of as 'not having stuff.'  But this is a fundamentally materialistic and consumeristic way of defining the term, and falls far short of understanding the plight of the poor, or the various ways in which poverty can be manifested.  For this reason, I am exploring these ways of describing poverty, although this is tenuously affirmed, and I would appreciate feedback on the ideas...

Instead of thinking of poverty as a lack of stuff, lets try thinking about it as a lack of access to systems of power.  This actually helps us to make sense of the different forms of poverty that we see in the world around us.  After all, most of us recognize that poverty is very real in our country, and yet, it is very different from poverty in other countries...

This can be defined as individuals or groups who lack access to systems of economic power.
These are people who are not having their most basic needs met.  They are without food, shelter, clean water, or health care.  This is what we think of as the 'global poor,' or the 'third-world poor.'

This can be defined as individuals or groups who lack access to systems of social power.
These are people who are abundantly fed, warm, and entertained, but have no control (real or perceived) over their own destiny, or that of their community or the world at large.  This is the 'urban poor' and the 'rural poor' of America.  People who have little access to education, to health care and healthy food, or to networks of economic, social, and political power.

This can be defined as individuals or groups who lack access to systems of meaning.
These peoples needs are met, they have power to control individual destiny, but there is no larger sense of what is to be pursued.  These are people we are not likely to consider poor, yet, they have a clear lack.  For them material wealth and power are ends in themselves, instead of means to something more meaningful...

In all three of these categories, the resultant poverty can be the result of an actual lack of access, or a perceived lack of access.  Both are equally problematic.  If a family starves because there is a famine, and literally no food exists within range of their table, that is neither more nor less a problem than an individual who suffers from mental illness and literally starves with food in their pantry.


steven hamilton said...

I think you are onto something very powerful, and it's certainly along the same lines that our Pittsburgh group has been wrestling with lately.

I do think that "systems"-talk, while being essential to understanding the issue and the siginificantly pointing out the communal-nature of the issues, can and needs to be balanced by how the biblical narrative tends to deal with these massive issues: the relational. In the OT and NT, poverty was fought by knowing, and including in your community, the poor, right?

poverty is fundamentally a relational issue. There are personal, economic, social and political consequences surrounding it, but at essence it is relational.

By the way, I also think this insight applies to almost everything: what is the primary issue of racism and lack of diversity? It’s a relational issue also.

the biblical narrative is also really clear that while the socio-economic systems put into place by YHWH for His People in the Hebrew scriptures have specific structures built-in to help the poor in an on-going way (with the Sabbath and Jubilee years fighting generational and structural injustice and inherent poverty), tithing was also relational. Tithing very practically brought you into direct relationship and contact with others in need and provided emergency funds for the local community. According to the Torah, the first tithe of the third year (which was to go to the poor, the widow, the orphan) was to brought to "those within your own gates"...your local context, right?

I am also naming some of the practices we see in the New Testament as “missional giving.” This kind of giving seems a bit different than the practices of relational tithing, as it included specific ministry costs of apostolic work, meeting specific needs beyond your immediate community and context, and for special projects your community wanted to give to collectively.

so the questions we are wrestling with are: if tithing is relational, how do we go about doing that in our context now? And if we are encouraged to give missional, how to we set about doing that in the broader context of the now-and-not-yet?

steven hamilton said...

one last throwaway thought: this also reminds me that God's unspoken understanding to Cain's shameful and derisive question-response is that, yes, indeed, I am my brother's keeper.