Poverty isn’t about not having money


It’s a common mistake to think that poverty is caused by a lack of money. It’s not. Being broke is a symptom of poverty — and not the most significant one.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book “When Helping Hurts,” explain how the poor see poverty.

“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms…” they explain. “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”

This deeper truth about poverty is the reason why a new proposal in The Atlantic Monthly simply won’t work. Poverty is more than a lack of money. It’s a lack of hope.

“In the United States, we are generally told that poverty is a deeply complicated problem whose solution requires dozens of reforms on issues as diverse as public schooling, job training, and marriage,” write Matthew Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker. “But it’s not true. High rates of poverty can, as a policy matter, be solved with trivial ease. How? By simply giving the poor money.”

They point out that 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million, live below the poverty line. Breunig and Stoker claim that an annual check of $2,920 could have a significant effect.

“The upside of giving everybody about $3,000 is that it’s a very easy policy to run and a surefire way to cut poverty in half,” they say. “But it’s a large program: it would require about $907 billion in 2012, or 5.6 percent of the nation’s GDP.”

They propose raising taxes on the rich and middle class to pay for the “universal basic income.”

Costs aside, how effective could such a scheme really be? If poverty really was a simple mathematical problem, quantified by a number in a bank account or pocketbook, then a guaranteed income would certainly be a simple fix.

But it’s not. Poverty has a psychological and spiritual dimension that calls for much more than writing a check.

A check can’t address the shame, isolation, fear and hopelessness that Corbett and Fikkert spoke of.

Poverty will only be reduced through true compassion — in that word’s original sense. In the Latin, compassion means “to suffer with” — to come alongside the sufferer, to help take up his burden. It’s a personal commitment of one person to another.

That’s something a check can’t do. Neither can a $3,000 check address some of the direct and undeniable causes of poverty — early and unmarried pregnancy and motherhood, a failing education system, substance abuse.

If only it were that easy. According to some estimates, the United States has spent $12 trillion since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in 1964. We have precious little to show for it.

There’s no easy answer to poverty, but there is a simple one.


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