Poverty Is Not a Character Flaw: Why Our Assumptions About Global Poverty Do Not Apply

January 21, 2014

You know, poverty is not a new topic of discussion.DSC_2574

Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.  I’m not sure if he was just stating the facts or if he was making a subtle condemnation, but either way, he has been right so far.

And poverty is almost a daily point of discussion in American culture and politics.  Poverty touches every area of American life, from education to insurance to public health.  Every politician wants to talk about the poor.  Every talking head on TV wants to talk about the poor.

And most of us, myself included, have made our own set of assumptions about what causes poverty.

In short, many of us believe (even if we do not say it quite this way) that poverty is a character flaw.

And what is so stunning to me is the discovery that every assumption I have about poverty at home does not apply in these far away places.

“They just need to get their act together.”

“He’s just made a lot of bad choices.”

“She’s just trying to abuse the system.”

“They’re just lazy.”

Come on, you know and I know that those are some of the assumptions and thoughts that come up when we talk about The Poor.  It is easy to make a straw man poor person in America.  It’s the person who milks the system with a fake disability.  Or the family that uses their food stamps and then spends their own cash on beer and cigarettes.  It’s the dozens of people who have asked me for “gas money” just a block away from the bars and liquor stores.  Our hearts become easily hardened as we start to believe that poverty is a sin, a character flaw, or a scam. 


So let’s take an example that is practically unthinkable in America but commonplace in Uganda: a grandmother abandons her little grandchild.  We would look at that and condemn.  How on earth could a grandmother abandon a little child?  Surely she is awful, terrible person.

Ah, but wait.  Here’s the real story.  The child’s grandmother has been taking care of her because her mother died.  She did not just die, she died of AIDS after being raped by an infected man.  So the tired, elderly woman who cannot even take care of her own needs now has to become a mother again.  She tries her best to care for the child, but the child becomes ill with malnourishment.  Grandmother takes the child to the hospital, but the hospital does not even have water.  A water truck comes by from which Grandmother must buy water, which she cannot afford and is not even clean.  She resorts to collecting some dirty water that is seeping from the back of the truck.

Grandmother finally decides, in anguish, that the child is doomed under her care.  The only hope is for her to walk away and pray, just pray that the child will wind up at an orphanage where her basic needs may be met.  She pulls her exhausted body away from the child and entrusts him to God.

And suddenly, things aren’t so easy to pick apart, categorize and judge as an American, and yes, this is a real and all-too-common scenario.

I am looking around, and I don’t see lazy people.  I see people who do not get the luxury of a “Sabbath.”  I see children who have to do hard labor.  I am seeing children who do not get to be children.  I am not seeing people who have become selfishly dependent on charity.  I’m seeing people desperate for mere survival.  I am not seeing people who are hurt by our efforts to help.  I am seeing a need so great that the need for help will never end.

And even if you still hang on to those reservations: what about all the bad choices that have been made, what about the government corruption, what about all the rape and the killing and everything else, remember that the ones who pay the highest price are the children.  It is not by their sins that they were born poor.  The Pharisees asked what sin the man had committed that he should be born blind.  Jesus was not interested in answering their question.

The possible character flaws of the blind man did not interest Jesus.

And our Pharisaical assumptions about the poor don’t really interest Him either.


Friends, I cannot be more excited to tell you that we have reached our fundraising goal, completely funding a new infant rescue center in Uganda.  There are still two more centers that need to be built, and plenty of need, so don’t hesitate to jump in.  But I just want to thank you deeply, deeply for your response in this matter.  It means the world to me.


3 responses to Poverty Is Not a Character Flaw: Why Our Assumptions About Global Poverty Do Not Apply

  1. Yes! So glad that goal was reached.

    “I am seeing a need so great that the need for help will never end.” Yes.

    As we head to Uganda in just a few days, my thoughts and prayers are with your team as you are there now.
    emily p freeman recently posted..On Marriage and Learning as We Grow

  2. We’ll only go so far. Only give so much.

    When you get billions of people like that (like me)…then poverty will continue.

    Jesus knew (knows) what we are all about.
    theoldadam recently posted..‘Accountability Partners’

  3. #fistbump again, dude. you’ve really nailed it with every post you’ve written on this trip so far. i’m so excited about the projects we’re working on, and can’t wait to see it all come to fruition…
    dan king recently posted..i didn’t make myself an orphan (reflections from #AfricaWH day four)