How Would You Define (and Solve) Poverty?

What is poverty?

That is the question asked at the beginning of chapter 2 in When Helping Hurts (Steve Corbet and Brian Fikkert). So take some time, and write down a few words or phrases that come to mind when you think of poverty.

More than likely, if you are from a middle-class (and especially Caucasian) culture, you think of poverty as being centered around a lack of material resources — money, food, health care, infrastructure, jobs, etc. This mindset is how the World Bank set out to rebuild ravaged Europe and low-income countries (such as India) after World War II.

But whereas investing capital in Europe proved successful, in places like India the economy failed to thrive, or even grow at all. What’s the difference?

Their efforts proved that poverty is more complex than having physical needs. Therefore, solving poverty is more complex than charitable donations.

What Is Poverty?

Poverty is more than just lack of physical resources. It’s about shame and embarrassment, due to the failure to be able to take care of oneself and one’s family. Poverty is about a lack of opportunity, and being burdened with feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Poverty robs you of your God-given sense of worth.

And according to When Helping Hurts, a biblical worldview will lead you to understand that poverty is also about broken relationships. God designed humans to have four types of healthy relationships:

  1. Relationship with God:  This is our primary relationship, from which the other three flow.
  2. Relationship with Self:  We have inherent value and dignity because we are created in God’s image.
  3. Relationship with Others:  “We are made to know one another, to love one another, and to encourage one another . . . .”
  4. Relationship with the Rest of Creation:  We are called to be stewards of creation and to be able to sustain ourselves through work.

How would you rate your relationships in each of these four categories? Can you say that you are perfect and complete in any of them? No, me neither.

What Are the Effects of Poverty?

Poverty involves having one or more of these relationships being incomplete and broken. By definition, then, we are all poor! The effects of these broken relationships can be manifested as follows:

  1. Poverty of Spiritual Intimacy:  denying God’s existence and authority, materialism
  2. Poverty of Being:  having god-complexes (thinking too highly of oneself) or low self-esteem (thinking too lowly of oneself)
  3. Poverty of Community:  self-centeredness, exploitation and abuse of others
  4. Poverty of Stewardship:  no sense of purpose, laziness or workaholics, materialism

Because of the fall (Genesis 3), our economic, religious, social, and political systems are all broken. It’s important to see that not all communities, cultures, and countries have similar manifestations of poverty manifested. If we want to help alleviate the effects of poverty, we need to pinpoint the primary causes (i.e., which broken relationships) in that particular setting.

How Do We Solve Poverty?

Why does it matter to pinpoint the problem? Because what we believe to be the primary cause will determine our primary actions.

In Table 2.1, the authors give a series of If/Then statements, according to this formula:

If we believe the primary cause of poverty is ___, then we will primarily try to ___.

For example:

  • Cause:  A lack of knowledge.  Solution:  Educate the poor.
  • Cause:  Oppression by powerful people. Solution:  Work for social justice.
  • Cause:  The personal sins of the poor.  Solution:  Evangelize and disciple the poor.
  • Cause:  A lack of material resources.  Solution:  Give material resources to the poor.

Western civilization focuses on this last cause and solution. But it’s obvious that diagnosis is not always simple, and poverty is usually caused by more than one factor. Therefore, a proper diagnosis will necessitate long-term involvement and caring relationships (and perhaps even a little trial-and-error).


If you are from a North American, middle class church, you probably have been locked in to this definition of poverty:

  • Material Definition of Poverty, plus
  • God-complexes of Materially Non-Poor, plus
  • Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Non-Poor, equals
  • Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-Poor

We need to think of poverty from the mindset of relationships. You can learn more from this follow up post, and from the book When Helping Hurts.

More Resources

These posts have great videos that will help you understand poverty, and what actions steps can truly help:

  • Poverty Cure.  The poor need development more than free handouts.
  • Stop Serving the Poor.  From The Chalmers Center, who helped to provide many of the ideas in When Helping Hurts.
  • Circles.  A program to empower families and communities to resolve poverty.

Other helpful links:


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5 responses to “How Would You Define (and Solve) Poverty?”

  1. Agent X says :

    To put it as compactly as I can… Poverty happens when there is a lack of celebration. The answer would be to increase the celebrity.

    • joeyespinosa says :

      Interesting statement. Can you explain what you mean by celebration & celebrity?

      • Agent X says :

        Yeah, to unpack it a bit…

        Humans are designed to be image bearers. We are meant to bear God’s image. And at his image, so says Isaiah, mountains bow down, valleys stand at attention, and crooked places straighten out to make a highway in the desert for our God. Romans 8 has that beautiful thought that creation groans as it waits for the revelation of the Sons of God (Children if you want to include girls too…)

        Some of these image bearers are shepherds. Some sheep. In fact, all are sheep with regard to some stuff, but may be experts in other areas. Some might have strength in areas of finance where others are weak. Some might have strength in the field of healthcare where others need help. Complimenting each other is in order here, if the world is to be right.

        However, since we bear God’s image, we are also meant to be celebrated. This goes for everyone. No matter who you are, someone should be celebrating that you are in this world. But some sheep are not celebrated. Some sheep only celebrate themselves or their kind. This is not right. And celebrations can and should be a big deal, but not at the exclusion of small celebrations.

        My reasoning is that when this celebration happens, it honors the one whose image you bear. And when we learn to celebrate strongly, and to be celebrated appropriately (and with humility), then the world will smarten up and take notice. The creation that groans will see the revelation it longs for! And this, at root, is what fighting poverty is all about.

        Thanks for asking…

        Blessings from TEXAS

  2. tjmcfee says :

    Reblogged this on brainsections and commented:
    Interesting ideas. –T.J.

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