The other kind of poverty

I believe poverty is more than a matter of personal behavior. People are poor not primarily because of bad decisions (though financial stress can disrupt a person’s decision-making ability) but because of other factors, many of them external, which trap them in poverty.

That said, I’ve seen the other kind of poverty — the kind that’s at least partly self-inflicted and more than a little self-destructive. I got an up-close view when my wife and I had to rent out our house while we were living out-of-state.

When the company we’d hired to look after our house told us that one of the tenants had lost their job, we asked them to lower the rent. We told them we didn’t want our tenants to worry about having a place to live.

The tenants thanked us by practically destroying our house.

What we didn’t know at the time was the property management company had neglected to do the promised screening and had put the worst sort of tenants in our house. The kind who don’t pay rent, who damage property, terrorize the neighbors, game the system, and get themselves evicted from one place after another.

Once they were gone, we began the slow (and expensive) task of fixing up our house. Surrounded by piles of garbage, broken windows, soiled carpet, and trashed appliances, it was hard not to be angry. I found myself thinking the worst of them and anyone remotely like them.

One day as I was cleaning out the basement, I found an opened Christmas card left by one of our tenants. It was from her dad. The return address indicated it had been sent from jail. Judging by the message, he’d been there a long time. There didn’t seem to be much of a relationship between him and his daughter, and the words inside were those of a man filled with regret.

It made me stop, there in the midst of my simmering resentment. I didn’t stop feeling angry. But I did pause to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d grown up in similar circumstances, if my father had spent most of my formative years in prison. How would the experience have shaped me? How would my development have been affected by the all lost opportunities, economic hardship, and stigma?

It made me realize I knew nothing of my tenant’s life and what had brought her to this point, where she evidently cared so little for herself and others that she couldn’t imagine another way to live.

None of which justified what she did. We can all choose to be more than the product of our circumstances. But sometimes our circumstances are so overwhelming, it’s difficult to see another way.


When I wrote my post on 20 things the poor really do, a number of the more critical responses essentially boiled down to, “I’ve seen somebody poor making bad choices, gaming the system, etc… so that’s what all poor people are like.” We typecast an entire group based on our limited observation of one or two people we barely know.

We never bother to learn more about them. We never listen their story. God forbid we humanize them in any way. That just makes it harder to sit in judgment.

But my faith teaches that people are image-bearers, made in the likeness of God himself. No matter how tarnished that image may get, it never completely vanishes.

Even now, it’s not easy to think of my former tenants as divine image-bearers, made and loved by God. But they are.

My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.

I try to remember this when I see someone who seems to be causing or contributing to their own poverty. In addition to remembering that they are the exception, not the rule, I try to remember that they are still loved by God. They are still his creation. There is more to their story than I realize. And perhaps — just maybe — their story could start to look a little different if people started treating them like human beings.

16 thoughts on “The other kind of poverty

  1. What an excellent post, and I appreciate this reminder: “My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.”

    Most conversations I try to have around this topic end with the same type of responses you received to your 20-things post – with people blaming the poor for their poverty and dismissing me as a bleeding heart who doesn’t understand how the world works. How dare any of us advocate for anyone to get what they don’t deserve! Even asking those with whom I’m speaking what they did to deserve the benefits and opportunities and love they have received in their life to give them an advantage over those who didn’t have those things, doesn’t seem to help them see it any differently. I’m glad you’re writing about this and sharing some of your personal observations. Thank you.


  2. After having our outlook on people and life in general get tarnished almost daily, it’s wise to reevaluate our perspective on how God looks at them and us and bring our mindset back in line with His. No exclusion from reparation or justice, just a more realistic evaluation of humanity and Divine Grace. Remember, how it was extended to us, and we were no more worthy. God bless everyone today.


  3. I’m not sure I agree that poverty can be eradicated in this life. Not because I don’t want it to be. But what do you do with Jesus’ words, “The poor you will ALWAYS have with you.” Please don’t misconstrue my comment as a justification of the status quo. I’m simply asking a very real question. (Please don’t vilify me for bringing this up, seriously.)

    And I LOVE your concept of Grace. Spot. On. Maybe God didn’t intend us to eradicate poverty, but learn to live towards the poor with the love and grace you speak of?

    Something else that occurred to me recently was what the welfare system has done to the church. It used to the the mission of local churches and communities to reach out to meet the needs of the poor locally. Now that the government has taken over this “job” (not mission), I feel that the church has been left mission-less, leading them to build bigger temples while ignoring the poor at their doors. What is your take on this?

    God bless,


    1. JudahFirst,
      First… I wouldn’t dream of vilifying you. You raise valid questions. Glad you took the time to interact.

      Jesus did indeed say there would always be poor people among us, which itself was a quotation of Deuteronomy 15:11. This verse is part of a larger passage in which the Israelites were instructed to cancel everyone’s debts every seven years. What’s interesting (and reinforces your point about living toward the poor with grace and love) is that Deuteronomy 15 also says “there need be no poor persons among [the Israelites]” (verse 4). So the larger message of Deuteronomy 15 was, in effect, “There SHOULDN’T be any poor people among you, but there will be, because you won’t do as you’re instructed.”

      I’ve heard “the poor you will always have with you” quoted as an excuse for apathy…which is clearly not what you’re calling for. To those who do use this passage as an excuse, however, it’s worth noting that according to Scripture, the only reason this statement is true is because of our apathy and failure to serve on behalf of the poor.

      Personally, I’m not sure the government welfare system (for all its flaws, and there are many) has displaced the church. I know of many churches, including mine, that are active in caring for the poor in our communities. (For example, my church regularly hosts homeless families.) To be sure, there are many churches that build bigger temples, as you say, while neglecting the poor. But I’m not sure the government’s role in providing welfare is to blame. I suspect the problem lies within the churches themselves. There does seem to be an element within Christianity that is sometimes more interested in building our own empire than in serving. And that’s unfortunate. But even if every church were fully engaged in serving the poor, the financial resources would not be adequate to cover the needs of every poor person in this country, much less the world around us. Plus, there are structural issues which the church is ill-equipped to address. For example, a lack of decent infrastructure — convenient public transportation, access to healthcare, etc. — can play a role in exacerbating poverty. These are issues which (arguably) have to be addressed at a public level. I’m all for churches doing more to meet the everyday needs of the poor…in fact, I think this is vital. Good people will disagree on the particulars, but I do think the government has a legitimate role to play in combating poverty.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and insights. I really appreciate them.


      1. Ben, your patient and concise response to my comment reinforced my conviction that following your blog was a great idea! Thank you for your thoughts about my thoughts. 🙂 You have inspired me to continue to think about this issue and I appreciate that. I did NOT know all that Deuteronomy said about the poor, but I’m so glad you pointed that out. I’m looking forward to much more from you in the future! God bless!!


  4. woooww this has been so inspirational & such eye opener. I especially love these lines
    ‘But my faith teaches that people are image-bearers, made in the likeness of God himself. No matter how tarnished that image may get, it never completely vanishes.
    My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.’


  5. I read your response to Ramsey’s list and then read the list. Then I wrote something a little less nice about it on my blog, addressing each list item individually.

    I definitely like your more controlled approach, but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve gone from $50/hr to food stamps in as little as a month. I’ve seen both sides. But it always amazes me how blind some people are to other people’s circumstances.


  6. I enjoyed your above article and your previous list of 20 things that the poor have to do every day. One thing that struck me from these posts, and from visiting your blog, was the importance of story. Telling our story and listening to the stories of others humanizes us – both the hearers and the storytellers. It is much more difficult to spout arrogant denunciations of the poor when you have truly met and listened to people who are struggling in poverty. Once we are engaged in true dialogue we are able to both recognize in others and reflect in ourselves the grace of God.

    I believe one of the most dehumanizing aspects of poverty is not being seen or heard. Here on this blog you are helping to humanize the poor by telling their story, just as you committed to telling the story of the Gospel for your daughter. I applaud your story-telling.


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