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.

Why do we blame the poor for buying stuff they can’t afford but not the ones who sell it to them?

Growing up, only a few blocks separated my home from one of the poorer neighborhoods in town. We drove through it from time to time, passing that one house with the huge satellite dish (it was the 90s) and the sports car parked outside.

The house and its occupants (who we never met, much less saw) became for me the epitome of everything wrong with poor people in America: they were poor because they spent what little they had on frivolous luxuries, all while (presumably) living off the government in their dilapidated house. They had no discipline, no work ethic, and therefore deserved none of my sympathy.

All of this I inferred from a quick drive past their house.

So I guess I’m not surprised that some people voiced a similar sentiment in response to last week’s post, including this person’s description of how he thinks the typical poor person spends their money (trigger warning: unsubtle racist stereotyping):

Cable TV $1500 a year
Cell phones for the family $2000 a year
New dr dre beats audio headphones $400 dollars for the family
Xbox $500 dollars
New Jordan’s and matching hoodies $800 a year
New rims for your whip $1000
Pack a day smoking $1200 a year per person X 2
Two monster energy drinks a day $1200 a year per person X 2…

Don’t tell me poor people can’t afford decent food… Don’t blame society for repeated stupid decisions by a certain percentage of the population, and then tell me I’m supposed to feel bad for them and subsidize their lifestyle. I’d like 4 monster energy drinks, some friggen ho ho’s and donuts and some lottery tickets to. The difference is I’m SMART enough not to do that every d*** day.

Too many of us use prejudice and caricature to justify an utter lack of sympathy for the poor, to rationalize the distance we’ve put between us and them.

But there’s something else worth noting. Even if it’s true that some people in poverty make things worse by buying stuff they don’t need and can’t afford (it’s a good thing the rest of us would never do that), we ought to ask why. Another commenter, Evan, hit the nail on the head:

Maybe if we didn’t live in a consumer culture that constantly tries to sell us wonderful things, and maybe if we didn’t treat being poor as a thing to be ashamed of, people would spend less on status symbols?

The top 100 advertisers spent more than $100 billion last year trying to convince us we need newer cell phones, faster cars, better makeup, and more credit card debt. They inundate us with billboards, banner ads, and TV spots telling us we’re not good enough unless we buy their stuff.

Do we really think this relentless barrage of advertising has no impact on our behavior, our sense of worth, our understanding of what we really need?

Everyone should be held responsible for their choices and actions. But that doesn’t just mean poor people who buy the $100 billion lie. It means those who sold it to them in the first place.

It means those who spend billions telling people it’s OK to go into debt. It’s OK to pay later. You can always take out a payday loan (at an undisclosed APR of 4,214%, of course). Just buy more stuff. How else will you be fit to walk the earth?

This exploitation in the name of “commerce” and “economic growth” is nothing new. Notice how the Old Testament prophet Amos described the merchants of Israel, who counted the minutes till the end of each holy day — which, among other things, were meant to be a temporary reprieve from such predatory commercialism:

“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

Their exploitation of the poor, God warned, would have consequences:

I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

All of us, rich and poor, make bad choices from time to time. And we often have to live with the consequences of those choices. But shouldn’t those who lay the trap be held responsible, not just those who walk into it?

Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making

Behind the controversy over Dave Ramsey’s “20 Things” post and his defense of it, there’s an assumption that poverty in America is fundamentally different from poverty in the developing world.

Almost everyone — including Dave Ramsey — accepts there are systemic, structural injustices which cause poverty in the other parts of the world. “The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion,” Ramsey writes.

When it comes to poverty in America, however, it gets written off as a consequence of poor decision-making by individuals:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

How is it that we can see the systemic causes of poverty elsewhere, but not in our own country? Do we think because our ancestors got rid of institutional slavery and child labor that there are no more structural injustices to be rooted out? Or are we so beholden to a capitalist, materialist ideology that we can’t even entertain the possibility of any flaws in our economic system?

Or do we just think we’re better than everyone else? Again, Ramsey:

One of the main reasons our culture has prospered is because of our understanding and application of biblical truths.

Translation: we prosper because we understand the Bible better. The Bible gets reimagined as a roadmap to prosperity, instead of a roadmap to the cross. Financial success is reimagined as proof of God’s favor; Jeremiah’s lament against the wealth of the wicked is quietly purged from our scriptures.

And so we tell ourselves (and our impoverished neighbors): if you are poor and you live in America, it’s your own fault.


Sure, there are people in financial distress because of bad choices that were made. (In fact, in recent years almost all of us have experienced some measure of financial distress because of bad choices made not by those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but by those at the top.) But do we really believe there are no structural or systemic factors at work, causing and perpetuating poverty in America?

Blacks and Native Americans are nearly three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Do we really believe the economic and social disparities affecting black communities have nothing to do with centuries of slavery and segregation — not to mention subtler forms of discrimination that persist in our day? Do we really think the massive displacement (and partial genocide) of Native Americans is unrelated to the comparatively poorer health and economic outcomes they experience today?

Do we really think we can end poverty just by telling people to “live within their means” when a quarter of all jobs in this country don’t pay enough to put a family of four above the poverty line? Do we really think it’s just a matter of telling people to be smart with their money when the average amount needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment exceeds the average renter’s wage by $4.50 an hour?

Do we really think poverty is just a failure of personal drive to get an education when schools in poor communities receive less funding and have to cope with outdated equipment and crumbling infrastructure?

Do we really think poverty in this country is just a matter of personal decision-making?

To fail to acknowledge the systemic factors affecting poverty is to perpetuate them.

In response to the list I shared yesterday, someone rightly asked, “Where’s the hope?” It’s all well and good to diagnose, but what about actually helping people out of poverty? It’s a fair question. I believe the first step in tackling poverty is to be honest with ourselves about the causes and contributing factors. We cannot help someone until we dismantle the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing and understanding them properly.