Walking into a Batwa home seeing a couple of blankets on the dirt floor of a room no more than 8’x8′ and being told that 4 children share this space every night is seeing poverty starkly. Yet these 4 children smile and are cheery. They proudly showed us the 1 school textbook they possessed. Walking into a flat with damp walls, a mattress on the floor but almost no furniture, and virtually bare cupboards in the UK is also staring poverty in the face. Again the children smile and joke. Poverty is a reality in just about every nation on earth. It is relative, and open to perception; the Batwa children would probably love a mattress but they might still prefer to share it and actually prefer the warmth of their climate to the damp of the U.K. They might prefer having open space to grow a small amount of crops to having to buy from shops and eat processed food. But in simple relative terms the children in the UK are better off than the Batwa. This, I hope, already illustrates that the issue of poverty is not as straightforward as can appear. Yet it also highlights that some aspects are clear. Poverty is about food and hunger; it is about shelter and clothing; it is about education and opportunity. Poverty is not simply a matter of income; so whilst the World Bank’s definition of a person living on less than $2 per day has some distinct advantages; as does the carefully calculated Living Wage Foundation’s living wage levels, if we reduce poverty merely to income we will fail to understand it properly. Simply throwing more money at poverty will not solve it; although equally a refusal to recognise that income levels do matter will only make poverty worse. There is a poverty that comes from lack of social relationships; from prejudice and inequality of opportunity. There is a poverty which comes from a lack of love. There is a spiritual poverty which fails to recognise, allow, or attempt to crush and destroy the human spirit with all its capacity for imagination, creativity, awe, wonder, worship and prayer. Poverty is multi-faceted and interconnected. It has therefore to be confronted and tackled in a multitude of ways. Fortunately because so much of life is interconnected it is quite possible to be working in several ways at once. If, though, we are to tackle poverty then not only must we recognise its multi-faceted nature we need to seek to understand its causes. Failure to recognise and tackle the causes of poverty means that we will only ever respond to the symptoms. So we will feed the hungry but not ask why the hunger exists. We will tend the sick but not see if the causes can be eradicated. We will wonder why after all the effort we put in so recently to help that the same situation has arisen once again. I have thus far made an assumption. The assumption has simply been that poverty is an evil that needs to be confronted. I am clear that as a Christian I have to believe this. However there are those who will argue that poverty is the fault either of the poor themselves, or of their own inept and corrupt governments and that they should be left to resolve the issues for themselves. Poverty is thus not ‘my’ or ‘our’ problem it is ‘theirs’. So although brief let me explore what the causes of poverty are as outlined in the Bible. There is, I believe, deep wisdom found here that current research and theories end up echoing and contextualising for the post-modern world.
POVERTY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES
The story of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt is foundational to understanding the Old Testament laws that tackle questions of poverty. The Israelites found themselves enslaved by an oppressive rule and government that increasingly made their situation individually and corporately worse and worse. Under Moses’ leadership God rescues the Israelites from this oppression. Constantly the Israelites are called to remember this deliverance as inspiration for their response to the most needy and vulnerable in their society, namely the widows, orphans (fatherless) and the stranger / alien (e.g. Exodus 22.22-24; Leviticus 19.9;23.2; Deuteronomy 10.18f; 24.17-22) It is the character, nature and action of God which is to be the leading reason why God’s people are to respond to poverty (Psalms 10.14,18; 68.5; 146.9) Within the way that Israel was expected to function, particularly once in the Promised Land, was to be socially structured in a way that meant the poor were properly provided and cared for. So the gleaning law stopped the ‘maximisation’ of a land owner’s profit so that the poor could gather for themselves. So here the poor are given the dignity of working to provide for themselves, not simply living off goods given to them; although this was also part of the social structure (Deuteronomy 14.29; 26.12f). The Levitical law of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) provided for the ownership of land to never become so out of kilter that the poor could never get back into ownership. It is a radical law that looks at the wiping out of debt to allow everyone to start again on an equal footing. The prophets of Israel strongly condemn the exploitation of the poor by the strong. It was the king’s responsibility to ensure that the poor and the weak were properly provided for and not exploited. The prophets had to call to account not only the Kings but also those around them, those who had accumulated wealth and power, for their self indulgence, forgetting of God, and exploitation of the poor (e.g. Psalm 72; Isaiah 1.17,23; 58 Jeremiah 5.28; 7.6; 22.3; Amos 4-5,8). Thus both the laws of the Old Testament and the call to uphold them from the prophets point to the social structures being key in seeking first to avoid poverty, and then when it occurs to alleviate it. The letter to James makes it quite clear that this concern for structure and the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful remained foundational for the early church too.
POVERTY AND NATURAL DISASTERS
There is also recognition that poverty could come about through natural disaster. This applied to individuals, as is seen in the example of Job losing everything (Job 1-2). It is also seen in the impact, for example, of earthquake, locust plagues, and drought; suffering follows for all. Jesus made it clear in referring to the innocent deaths of 18 when the Siloam Tower collapsed that we should not equate such suffering with specific guilt or judgment; in the world the way it is suffering happens. (Luke 13.1-5) Poverty can be the result of no ones specific fault. The response should be that of compassion. Such disasters may be ‘large’ in that they affect huge numbers of people. They can also be ‘small’ in that it might be the death of a family member which leads to loss for the family as a whole. Natural disasters are the result of nature at work. Although this said we should rightly check out that a ‘natural disaster’ has not actually been caused by human mishandling of water supplies, or pollution through bad mining practices, or building collapse through poor quality construction. Where this is the case then we need to take up responsibility, whether that be an individual, a company or the actions of the wealthy in humankind, as with climate change. Poverty can be caused by natural disaster, great and small.
POVERTY AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Then there is reference to poverty coming about through an individual’s own choices, even laziness. In the book of Proverbs the ‘sluggard’, or ‘slothful’ person, is warned that this leads to poverty (Prov 6.6-19; 13.4; 19.24; 20.4; 24.30-34). St Paul has sharp words for those who will not work to provide for themselves and their family (2 Thess 3.6-12). So some poverty may be caused by a person’s own attitude and failure. However this needs to be set alongside the much harsher, and more frequent, warnings made to the rich to beware their self indulgence, failure to care for the poor and tendency to trust in their wealth rather than in God (Luke 12.13-21; 16.19-31; 1 Tim 6.6-10,17-19; James 5.1-6; 1 John 3.17) So personal responsibility does matter. A person should not deliberately choose the way of laziness. This is one reason why the gleaning laws allowed for the gleaner to have the dignity of working for themselves to gather the grain ( a story beautifully told in the Book of Ruth). But to over emphasise this as the major cause of poverty is both to overplay the biblical material on poverty, and tends to be argued by the wealthy who then conveniently ignore all the warnings on themselves, and the injunctions to be generous with their wealth.
Consistently throughout history we can find the poor being blamed for their own poverty by the powerful and rich. The theme of the ‘sluggard’, the ‘feckless’ or the ‘unworthy’ poor is repeated time and again. It is frequently seen in our own day; where the poor are too frequently named as ‘wasters’, ‘scivers’ and ‘scroungers’. Yes there are some who do not do what they could for themselves. But to make poverty primarily the responsibility of the poor themselves is to reverse the order of the causes of poverty. It is to make the minority cause the main one. This inevitably will then lead to focus responses on things that connect with individual living rather than tackling the major root causes. The primary causes of poverty are social structural ones. If we really want to tackle poverty we need to analyse these and reform them. Very often these structures favour the rich and the powerful, who therefore tend to be reluctant to make changes that leave them less wealthy and less powerful. However if we really mean it when we say we want to end poverty we will have to tackle the structures in both our own society and in matters like world trade. As we do so we will respond compassionately to those who find themselves poor through the impact of natural disasters, both great and small, and we will encourage personal responsibility. In all honesty it can seem an impossible vision and dream to believe that poverty can be over. The gulf between rich and poor seems so wide and so deep. This is whether the gap is within our nation, or the even greater gap between the rich and poor nations. However I believe that holding on to the vision matters. It is, at the end of the day, a vision from God and one that I therefore believe will one day happen. It is for us all to work to see that day come when poverty will be over and a future generation of Batwa children will not be so poor and no child in this nation will live in poor housing, health and most importantly of all not knowing love, both human and divine.