The First Step in Poverty Alleviation

Written by MayBell Developments – January 27th, 2022

When Canadians see poverty around them, normally there are one of two reactions. Either we ignore it and try to remove any reminders of poverty from our lives (we do this by where we choose to live, how we spend our time, and who we allow into our lives), or we try and do something about it. It might seem obvious that one reaction is more desirable than the other but, sometimes, both reactions can damage the materially poor all the same.

Before diving in, it’s important to recognize that material poverty isn’t just a lack of money or stuff. That’s usually just a symptom of something much deeper. To rid our world of poverty, we need to get to the root of the poverty problem which is complex and layered. 

The Cause of Poverty

Poverty is a result of the brokenness of the most fundamental relationships of life – our relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. World Vision defines the cause of poverty thus: 

“Poverty is the result of broken relationships and exploitation by unjust systems, processes and powers in the social, religious, economic, political, environmental and spiritual domains at the local, national, regional and global levels.”

Though there might be thousands of sub-headings and variations, here are some big ideas that work together to push people into poverty and keep them trapped in it.

  1. Other gods or a domesticated god – When we place our trust in things other than the King and Creator of the universe, we are susceptible to erroneous stories of change.
  2. Marred identity – This is a poverty of being. A feeling of inferiority and incapacity is created by failing to live up to the stories that culture has set as norms.
  3. Broken systems at the community and macro-level – The ways our collective sin and unjust practices shape the world we live in (often in ways we are unaware of). This can create oppression, lack of access, false stories, and moral poverty.
  4. Broken people – The broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation that we experience both shape and are shaped by the culture we inhabit. Here we see things like power struggles, racism, violence, God complexes, and injustice.

Stop for a moment and look at these definitions of poverty. Is addressing these causes how you think of poverty alleviation? Many of us think that poverty alleviation is the materially wealthy ladling soup, digging wells overseas, or providing housing to the homeless in our city. While there is space for these activities to be helpful, if that is all we are doing we will never solve these real causes of poverty. So what’s the first step in poverty alleviation?


A Call to Repentance

The same brokenness that affects the materially poor affects you and me. While Jesus calls us to help the materially poor, there is a sense in which we are all poor. None of us experience relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation in the way that God designed. 

Many people who are materially poor have a broken relationship with self, and so they suffer from a marred identity or a sense of inferiority. They often feel that they are powerless to change their circumstances.

Those of us who are materially wealthy (whether we help the materially poor or ignore them) also have a broken relationship with self, though we experience this differently. We often suffer from self-righteousness or what some people call a “god-complex”. We believe that we can use our wisdom, talents, knowledge, and wealth to save the world and help (or because of our feeling of superiority, choose to ignore) those in material poverty.

This is why sometimes just meeting material needs does not always work. The way that we’re broken and the way the materially poor are broken is a bad combination. Our words and actions communicate to the poor what they are already feeling: that they’re less than us, that they are incapable and inferior. Sometimes, we actually hurt people more than we can imagine in the very process of helping them.

We need to adopt a posture of humility that recognizes that “We are all broken” and come to Jesus knowing that His grace is sufficient for all of us and that only He can bring healing to all parties. 

A Humble Posture

It can be difficult to cultivate a posture of humility in a western nation like Canada. We find it easier to have compassion for the materially poor in 3rd world nations around the world but that same compassion for the materially poor doesn’t always come home and is sometimes replaced with disgust or disdain.

Being materially poor in Canada comes with many misconceptions, assumptions, and stereotypes. It’s hard for the materially wealthy to understand how someone could be materially poor with so many opportunities. We often wonder why the materially poor can’t make the systems that work so well for us work for them. We believe false stories about the materially poor such as:

  • “They are all criminals”
  • “They are all drug addicts or alcoholics”
  • “They are all too lazy to work”
  • “They are in poverty as a result of poor life choices”

These stereotypes and misconceptions are widespread and seem genuine to the average materially wealthy Canadian, but are rooted in a heart of ignorance, arrogance and self-righteousness. When we subscribe to these stereotypes we are truly saying “If they only just did what I do”, “Why can’t they be more like me?”, or as an example “Why can’t they just get a job (like me)?”. 

Self-righteousness fuels our inability to engage hurting people. Instead of showing grace, mercy and compassion to those hurting around us, we elevate ourselves while simultaneously affirming, in our mind and theirs, that the materially poor are inferior to us. 

Self-righteousness causes a separation between the non-material poor and the materially poor. It is impossible to show somebody compassion, empathy and mercy if we distance or distract ourselves from feeling deeply the brokenness of the world. Before we begin to help those in poverty we need to open ourselves to this reality and repent of sinful pride. For many people, the systems don’t work and are even oppressive. And when personal sin is the primary culprit, we need to remember that we are all sinners, just in different ways.

Humble Healing

We need to repent of the self-righteousness that widens the gap between the materially wealthy and the materially poor and trust in Jesus who is making all things new, including our relationships, to repair the fundamental issues underlying material poverty.

Yes, Jesus calls us to engage with the poor around us, but we are to do so with an attitude of humility. Understanding that we are all broken in different ways and that Jesus wants to heal both the materially poor and us. He wants to bring all people to wholeness of life, living in restored relationships with God, ourselves, others, and the rest of creation.


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