Personal Growth

What Is Poverty and How Should We Respond to It?

I recently took some time to look through other blogs and see what’s being written about giving back (charity, volunteering, etc.), and I realized that most blogs, even personal development blogs, don’t touch on this topic.

However, I think that issues of poverty and giving back are important for us to think about as we consider what we want our lives to look like. This blog is all about creating a more fulfilling life and I think this topic fits in well as we consider how best to use our time and resources.

What is Poverty and How Should We Respond to It?

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Through the course of my MA in International Development program, I have been learning a lot about poverty, what it is, and how we should respond to it. What I’ve learned is that poverty has more definitions than you might expect and is responded to differently depending on the definition.

In this post, I’d like to offer a broader definition of poverty than most of us have considered before, and think about what it would mean to define poverty this way.

P.S. I am writing this post as part of an assignment for my MA program. Because of this, the language will be slightly more formal than other posts I’ve written. However, I really want this post to be engaging and thought-provoking and maybe even inspire you to make some changes. As I mentioned above, this blog is all about creating a more fulfilling life and I think this topic fits in well as we consider how best to use our time and resources.

Please know that I am still learning and many of these thoughts are incomplete. I sincerely welcome your thoughts and responses so that we can grow and learn together.

What is Poverty?

What do you think of when you think of poverty? Maybe you think of slums or starving children. You might think of dirt or poor sanitation. You may even think about the kids who get free lunch at school.

Whatever picture comes to mind, it’s likely that it involves a lack of money or resources.

But what if we thought about poverty differently?

I want to offer a more broad definition of poverty than you may have considered before. If you Google the definition of poverty, the second definition offered is:

“The state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.”

You might notice that this definition says nothing about money or resources. In fact, the example listed under the definition was: “the poverty of her imagination.”

According to this definition, poverty is not only the lack of money or resources, but the lack of anything.

Poverty can take many forms, only one of which is physical poverty. Let’s look at various forms of poverty in more detail:

Physical Poverty

I’ve decided to start with physical poverty because it’s what most of us immediately think of when we think of poverty. Physical poverty is lack of physical possessions or goods – money, food, housing, water, etc.

I think we tend to think about physical poverty more than other forms of poverty because it often feels so jarring. It’s easy to see and, when we do see it, it contrasts so starkly with our own experience that it feels sad or uncomfortable.

Physical poverty is also more apparent in our own lives when it exists. When you experience physical poverty, you may also experience hunger or lack of shelter or other very tangible lacks.

Physical poverty is a huge problem in our world. In fact, it affects the vast majority of people living in the world today, but it’s not the only type of poverty.

Relational Poverty

Here’s where the broad definition of poverty may start to look different than your original understanding of poverty. Relational poverty, as the name suggests, is the lack of relationships.

Relational poverty is obviously different from physical poverty because, where physical poverty is mainly external, relational poverty is mainly internal.

We experience relational poverty very privately and it isn’t something we talk about very often. We may express feelings of loneliness every once in a while, but, overall, it’s not a common topic of discussion.

Because of the private nature of relational poverty, it is often less apparent than physical poverty. While it is generally easy to identify physical poverty, it’s more difficult to know when someone is struggling with relational poverty.

And here’s where relational poverty gets really uncomfortable: it affects almost everyone at one time or another – meaning you and me, too.

“Poverty” is a word we like to use to define other people but don’t want to define ourselves by. We spend much of our time and effort avoiding being poor, which is why it’s so uncomfortable to think about ourselves as relationally poor or spiritually poor.

Spiritual Poverty

Spiritual poverty is the last type of poverty that I’ll go into detail on. There are a few ways to define spiritual poverty and I’ve struggled a little with the definition, but, for our purposes, I’ll define it as not knowing what you believe or not acting upon your beliefs.

I am a Christian and I have a fairly clear understanding of what I believe, but I don’t always act in line with those beliefs. I’m human and I mess up (all the time), so my life doesn’t necessarily reflect my beliefs in the way it should.

There are also many people who have not taken the time to think about what they believe. I think sometimes it’s easier to just go with what your parents believed or to just say you don’t know instead of really digging into and deciding what you believe.

I think that we all start out at a place of spiritual poverty, but as we identify what we believe and work towards aligning our actions with our beliefs, we become less and less spiritually poor.

Other Poverties

I’ve chosen the three types of poverty above because they tend to have the biggest impact on our lives, but there are many, many other types of poverty. Some of the other types of poverty are important and some are inconsequential. The important thing to recognize is that we all struggle with one form or another of poverty.

Why Should We Define Poverty More Broadly?

At this point, you may be wondering why we should define poverty with a broader definition, and that’s a great question.

Ultimately, the broader definition of poverty is important because it evens the playing field, so to speak. If we can acknowledge that we all are poor in some way, we can begin to let go of our superiorities and start to think of ourselves and others as equals.

It is so easy to look at physical poverty and those who struggle with it and separate ourselves, thinking of ourselves as different or better. But when we acknowledge that we also struggle with poverty – relational, spiritual, or otherwise – we’re not so different after all.

It is at this point of understanding that we can begin to build relationships and common ground with others as we encourage each over to overcome our poverties.

How Should We Respond to Poverty?

With all this being said, I want to take some time to think through what our response should be to poverty if we choose to accept this definition. Our responses to poverty can be broken into two parts: responding to our own poverty and responding to the poverty of others.

Responding to Our Own Poverty

I believe the first step in responding to our own poverty is to acknowledge what poverties we struggle with.

You may have great relationships but no real idea what you believe, in which case, you may struggle with spiritual poverty but not relational poverty.

In many ways, “responding to your own poverty” is another way of saying “personal growth.”

Once you identify what poverties you struggle with, begin to think through the ways you can respond to them. Here are some ideas to get you started:

    1. Use a brain dump to note all of the ideas you have for addressing a specific poverty
    2. Ask close friends for ways you could improve in a specific area
    3. Set one long-term goal to address each type of poverty

Related: 5 Simple Steps for Setting Long-Term Goals

Responding to Others’ Poverty

Unlike responding to your own poverty, responding to others’ poverty isn’t as easy as identifying the problem and setting goals to fix it. What you may see as the problem may not be what someone else sees as the problem and you can’t change a person without taking the time to get to know them.

Recognize That You’re Not Better

Responding to the poverty of others starts with recognizing that you are no better than anyone else. While others may struggle with a specific type of poverty that you don’t struggle with, you have your own struggles and poverties.

We are often tempted to look at someone who has no money or no friends and think that we’re better than them, but the reality is that we’re not. No one person is better than any other person.

Until you understand this, you will approach every situation with a better-than-thou attitude that prevents any real change from happening.

Understand That You Have Things to Learn, Too

When you approach others, don’t only approach them with the assumption that you will be teaching them. Remember that you have things to learn, too, and they may be able to teach you.

Every relationship is a two-way street. Be willing to listen and learn from them and change your opinions when necessary. You may go into a relationship or situation thinking your way is the right way and you won’t know you’re wrong unless you take the time to listen.

Build Community

Change happens in community. If you think back to personal changes you’ve made, it’s likely that there was a person there encouraging you or pushing you towards that change in some way.

While we could certainly identify someone else’s problem, write up a plan to fix it, and then impose it on them in some way or another, this won’t ultimately lead to change because change generally starts on the inside.

It is through relationships that we start to share and build trust. Then, when we trust others and they trust us, we slowly allow ourselves to change each other.

Give What You Can

None of us are perfect and no one has it all together, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to give.

Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by our own shortcomings, we think that we don’t have something to offer others, but that isn’t true. We all have something to offer.

At whatever place you’re at right now, commit to giving what you can. Give of your time, your belongings, your money, your smiles… whatever it is, give what you can.

One Last Note

Poverty is a big topic made even bigger with a broad definition. I know I haven’t touched on it all and there is still more I have to learn. Like I mentioned above, my thoughts are still incomplete and I’m still learning.

I would love to hear your thoughts about poverty and whether you’ve thought about it this way before. How has this understanding of poverty challenged your previous understandings and what are you going to do about it?

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