Let’s Talk Poverty: Introduction

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on March 8, 2018 | Print

Let’s talk about poverty. I don’t want to be cliche in this discussion and simply accept our cultural understandings and biases about what poverty is and isn’t. Rather, I would like to look at some common views and perceptions along with misconceptions. And, I would love to hear your thoughts on these reflections as well – especially your first-hand experiences in working with “the poor.”

Did you catch that last statement?

When we begin to talk about “the poor” we have already placed a label on them that conjures all kinds of images. Not only have we labeled them, but now we have segregated “the poor” into the basic grouping of “them” and “us.” It’s very subtle, but it quickly reminds us that we all have our perspectives and biases when we begin to talk about this topic.

Our understanding of why people are poor and definition of poverty shape how we view and address poverty. When we incorporate relief and development strategies into our missions efforts, how we view “the poor” and poverty ultimately affects the ways we address people and potential solutions.

According to Bryant Myers in “Walking with the Poor”, our understanding of the nature and the causes of poverty tends to be in the eye of the beholder. And that understanding shapes our response. Thus, if we see the cause of poverty as one thing, a natural response might be as follows…

Cause of Poverty Proposed Response
The poor are sinners Evangelism and uplift
The poor are sinned against Social action; work for justice
The poor lack knowledge Education
The poor lack things Relief; social welfare
The culture of the poor is flawed Become like us; ours is better
The social system is flawed Change the system


When we raise our view from physical need and the individual person to the social and cultural systems within which the poor live, we begin to understand that ideas, values, and worldviews also need to change.

I can’t wait to discuss this in the following weeks. How do you see poverty? Does your understanding of poverty affect the way you approach ministry with the poor?

Other posts in this series:

Gayle Berry 6 years ago

Living in Mumbai (Bombay), India, I passed the monstrous "poor" area between our part of the metropolitan part of the city and downtown Mumbai many times and prayed wondered how that area could be helped socially and politically but I could never come up with an answer. How could we as foreigners from a supposedly wealthy country (United States) go in to their third world country and make changes socially and politically especially changes that would affect those persons living in tents and shacks and barely surviving on a day to day basis. As FMB/IMB representatives, it made us think and pray about why we were there and what we could accomplish in our short time there (6 months) not only to do our assigned task but to provide assistance in other meaningful and Christian ways.

Lee Lowe 6 years ago

There will never cease to be poor people in the land; and that is why I am commanding you, you must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land. (Deut. 15:11). I think the problem we Americans have is we get overwhelmed with the needs instead of meeting a need one at a time as we identify it. Rather than be paralyzed by what we can't do, do what we can.

Jeff Palmer 6 years ago

Lee, absolutely. "The poor you will always have with you..." was never meant by Jesus to give us an excuse not to care for those in need. He could have said, "the lost you will always have with you" and that wouldn't exclude us from sharing the good news. The great news we have is that we serve a God who desires abundant life for us here and now and for eternity. If we could simply put aside our fears, biases, and our own schedules, maybe we could see those in need by the side of the road and respond with some of our time and compassion. Thanks for the comment!

Gayle Berry 6 years ago

Having lived in Bangalore and Mumbai, India, I feel the only item in your six point list of importance is the one that the poor lack things and the only cure is social. There is not enough money in the world to bring all the poor and needy of the world up to a median level of status but we as outsiders can provide some help. Most of the help must come from within the country itself and we as outsiders can do more by working within the government and their social system than throwing money at the lowest levels of the social caste. Of course, that does help many people mentally and it's a point that we can focus on within our churches and mission sending organizations but how can we help at the highest levels of government? Is it possible to help or change the highest levels of government and stop the mass corruption that's prevalent in the economically challenged countries around the world and get them to provide resources to the poor people in their countries???

Jeff Palmer 6 years ago

Gayle, I think those of us that have lived and worked in areas such as you describe have had the exact same feelings from time to time. I encourage our partners to remember that they are not called to solve all the world's problems (when it comes to poverty, hunger, etc.), but rather to participate in the lives of the poor in a way that brings dignity, hope for a better life, and hope for eternity. Thank you for your service to others!

Dayna Austin 6 years ago

Poverty is caused by a lot of things. Corrupt governments, civil wars, living in a country that offers little opportunity for employment, lack of birth control, lack of equal opportunity due to cultural classes, lack of a work ethic, lack of health care, socialistic attitudes, mental health issues, homelessness, lack of education in a field that is in demand, lack of opportunities for handicapped, poor planning, drugs, alcoholism, etc. Some poverty is caused by poor life choices, some is caused by oppression and adverse circumstances beyond ones control. How I view poverty does have an affect how I deal with individual cases.

Jeff Palmer 6 years ago

Dayna, you are correct. Poverty is a complex issue. Also, we who are "the haves" of the world, live in our own type of poverty - the poverty of "having" things. Our "having" poverty often blinds us to the needs of others, breaks relationships in families (e.g. arguing over inheritances), or simply distorts or view and ability to comprehend others who don't live the way we do (i.e. seeing the beggar on the side of the interstate off ramp with a sign and having negative thoughts). Thanks for your heart for understanding this complex problem!

Carolin 6 years ago

It is a very interesting discussion. I see poor as someone who has no opportunity- I see it as a rights issue not as charity. A human like me but who starts the day with- how will I get food, what do I give my children to eat, where do my family sleep.. We have carved a society in which we like to help them but we do not want to live in a place they live, eat in a place they eat, take service in a place where they take.. I personally do not think that I am helping them, all I try to do is to connect with them- as a fellow human being!

Comments are closed.