Saturday, September 18, 2010

What is poverty?

Rupert @roop13 asked me a series of great questions via twitter that I can’t answer in 140 characters. Here’s his tweet: @ArloaSutter define poverty? Do u really consider poverty in the US to be poverty? Do u really think we have it that bad in the US? #justcurious

Here is my response, Rupert. Let me know your thoughts.

Poverty is very complex and can be defined in many ways. The first thing that usually comes to our mind is economic poverty. In my book, The Invisible, I mention that even economic wealth is relative. Here is a quote from page 62.
Clearly, economic poverty is relative. A family living on $20,000 per year in Bolivia may be quite comfortable, while a family of four in the US would be living in poverty, and the family would be in crisis if they lived in Europe. When I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2005, I was amazed to learn that $40 per month was considered a pretty good salary for teachers there…

While you may not consider yourself to be financially rich, I am going to assume, in a world in which half the population lives on less than $2 per day, that most of you reading this book are extremely wealthy. A web site,, will tabulate your income relative to the rest of the world. A salary of $50,000 will put you in the top 1 percent of the world’s wealthiest! Unless, your income is significantly less than that, you can be pretty sure that nearly 99 percent of the world’s population is poorer than you economically.
Yes, Rupert, I believe there is, indeed, poverty in the US and lots of it. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune “The Census Bureau said 14.3 percent of the U.S. population, or 43.6 million people, lived below the poverty line last year, compared with 13.2 percent in the previous year and 11.3 percent in 2000… The poverty threshold last year was $10,956 for one person and $21,954 for a family of four.”

In the US, this poverty is compounded by what I call a “poverty of purposelessness, hopelessness and despair”. There are millions who are left out of any income generating activities. While I don’t want to discount that some people are just lazy, I would suggest that, for the most part, these are individuals who have simply given up on ever having the opportunity to get ahead. They often come from families that have been burdened by poverty for generations, have attended under-performing schools and have lived in environments burdened by crime and violence. Poverty has become a way of life for them. They are trapped with seemingly no way out.

There is also a kind of poverty that burdens the economically wealthy. The church of Laodicea was told in Revelation 3, “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” We can have economic wealth and be trapped in a web of self-centered consumerism that stifles our soul and compounds our greed.

A few years ago, I asked a group of young men who had spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya what they were given to eat. They rounded their hands to form a bowl and said they were each given one bowl of meal to last an entire month. I asked if it lasted that long and they said it didn’t, that sometimes they had to go several weeks with nothing.

I don’t think the poor in the US experience that kind of extreme poverty. The fact that millions in developing countries go hungry and die of malnutrition and other diseases should disturb us. I think we all need to be involved in poverty alleviation at home and abroad in some way through our investments and advocacy.

Emerson, Smith and Snell in their book, Passing the Plate, discovered that if 90 percent of committed Christian households in the United States would give away 10 percent of their after tax income, we could raise $85.5 billion each year above what is currently given. What a difference this could make in alleviating poverty! The sad fact is that one in five US Christians give literally nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities!

Jesus told a group of Pharisees in Luke 11, “you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness… give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

Jesus was the greatest advocate for caring for the poor in dignifying ways that ever lived. Those of us who choose to follow him will follow him to the poor.

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