Frequently, when asked the question, what is poverty? two themes recur: a lack of something, and a material based definition. The authors of When Helping Hurts take that idea and invite us to expand our thinking. Instead of thinking of poverty in terms of one category–material resources–we should think of it in terms of four categories. And instead of thinking of poverty as a lack of something–money or food–we should think of it as brokenness or distortion.
It’s a framework we’ve been presenting to our students as poor4.
Here’s how this plays out:
Consider the creation accounts in the beginning of Genesis. When God established the world, there was goodness in humanity’s relationship to God, themselves, each other, and creation. So with God, Adam and Eve understood that they were creatures, not the creator. They understood that they were loved and valued and made in God’s image. With themselves, there was neither shame nor pride in their self-view. They related to each other with mutual respect and mutual submission. And they cared for the world, tending the garden and being provided for accordingly. They were neither greedy nor deprived of what they needed.
So there was wholeness across all four areas.
After sin enters the picture, all four areas are affected. They are all broken and distorted. Clearly the relationship between God and humanity is broken. But so is their relationship with themselves, evidenced by the entrance of shame and hiding. With each other, there are now divisions, inequalities, and roles. And in creation, they will have to toil for their food.
So what does that mean for poverty? It means that the materially rich and the materially poor all experience poverty.
The materially rich often struggle to create and maintain healthy relationships.
Rich teens are the most at risk adolescent population when it comes to recreational drug use, unprotected sex, drinking, self harm and depression–over and above inner-city teens.
Then there’s the question: is the accumulation of a lot of stuff aligned with God’s vision for us to sustain ourselves through our work? Or is it a distortion, prompted by greed? And do we gather all this stuff so that we feel protected from life’s unpredictabilities–so that we can ‘be God’ and sustain ourselves?
And the materially poor can experience poverty all these areas, in their own way. With God, they may not know that God is for them or with them, because how could a good God leave them in their struggles? With self, there is often deep shame over not being able to provide for their family. With creation, we see the typical definition–lack of stuff. They are often not able to work to sustain themselves.
But ultimately, in this system, we are all poor. So when two communities from different monetary contexts come together, we all come broken. No longer is the wealthy person the one who ‘has,’ giving what is needed to the one who ‘has not,’ as if nothing is wrong with them. And we can all find healing through God with one another’s help.