Poverty: It’s not what you think

Part 1

Over the next four posts, we’ll be challenging our own assumptions about what poverty is, why it exists, and—most importantly—what is truly needed to help people escape it. Today we’re looking at the contrast between how the Bible speaks of the poor with our own society’s perceptions of poverty.

Poverty in the Psalms 
Entire societies were convinced the world was flat, until someone suggested otherwise. Many of us assume that we know what poverty is, but we could have a two-dimensional view. The Bible gives us a fuller perspective. 

In Psalm 12:5 David wrote, “‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’” 

Psalm 10 observes how powerful people trample the poor. These psalms describe poverty and challenge common perceptions. They don’t focus on material things. When Westerners describe poverty, they focus on what people don’t have. These psalms focus on how the poor are treated. The poor are powerless, so they lose out to those who are more powerful. They are not poor in isolation; other people contribute to their poverty.

The poor are described as hunted (10:2, 9); victims of greedy schemes (10:2, 3); lied about and threatened (10:7); victimised and ambushed (10:8); helpless, crushed, disempowered, afflicted and oppressed (10:9, 10, 12, 14, 17); trapped in relationships that disadvantage them (10:7-10); needy, plundered and groaning (12:5, 7).

The powerful are described as proud (10:4), greedy (10:3) and liars (10:7). They think they are invincible (10:6) and unaccountable (10:11, 13). They have no regard for God and don’t believe that God will call them to account. They think they are superior to others and entitled to behave this way.
Notice that the psalmist does not focus on stuff but on how the poor are treated. Of course there are many causes of poverty; some are poor because they are foolish (Proverbs 22:26) or lazy (Proverbs 10:4; 14:23). However, when whole people groups live in poverty for generations, the issues in Psalm 10 are probably involved—greed, lies and oppression may lurk in the background. These causes are spiritual and moral, not just economic. 

Perceptions of poverty in the developed world
Our modern understanding of poverty emerged in the aftermath of World War 2. Much of Europe had been destroyed but was rebuilding. The idea emerged that this progress could be replicated in the developing world. Poverty began to be seen as simply not having enough stuff, so the solution was to give people stuff. 

This injection of capital did not produce the same results it had done in post-war Europe. While the developing world has seen significant improvements, many serious problems remain. Some countries received considerable aid yet people’s condition has deteriorated. 

A turning point came in the 1990s. Research conducted by the World Bank, called Voices of the Poor, asked the poor to define poverty themselves. More than 60,000 of the world’s poorest people were surveyed, with surprising results. They found that “while the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition far more in … psychological and social terms. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.”

The poor were less concerned about stuff and more concerned with how they were treated. When the poor were asked to describe poverty, they raised the same issues the psalmist wrote about in Psalm 10. Poverty is less about stuff and more about powerlessness.

Ross Farley

Orignally Published In Serving Together, an Australian Missionary Tidings (AMT) Publication. Used With Permission.  www.amtglobal.com.au