Whether we are aware or not, pictures form a dominant part of our intellectual life. We understand simple phrases and singular words not immediately through logic, but through images. Consider, when I say, ‘dog, horse, house, man, or woman,’ what comes to mind? Now, explain what happens when I use the words ‘sophisticated, profundity, ubiquitous, or sublimity.’ Most people can readily say when they read the first list of words, images easily came to mind, yet when they read the second list, the images were more difficult to come by. The reason? Since most are not too familiar with the words in the second list, an associated image is just not there.
Honestly, when you hear the word poverty, what images come to mind? Do you quickly imagine a woman pushing a shopping cart in an urban city wearing tattered, soiled clothing? Do you quickly imagine a male, sitting beside a cardboard box, wearing equally tattered clothing holding up a sign saying, “Will work for food?” Irrespective of which images quickly came to mind, one thing is for sure. The vast majority of us (I would dare say none of us) saw anything similar to a female dressed in a tailored suit, walking out of a bank on Wall Street and getting into her 2016 Mercedes S550.
Poverty, for 99.9% of the national and international population is almost entirely a financial, material term. Hence, if one is able to meet his or her financial and material obligations with regularity, then he or she is not in the classification of poverty. Now certainly, if one is unable to meet his or her direct financial or material needs, he or she would be generally considered poor. However, I submit to you that the inability to meet financial and material obligations is but one symptom of the multi-symptom, cultural disease of poverty.
Sociologists and economists have studied poverty for years and they keep pointing to the same conclusions, which never solve the issue of poverty. They keep pointing to the absence of financial or material needs, with the cure being to provide for those needs. Consider one fact to substantiate this claim. A “War on Poverty” was announced by President Johnson during his 1968 State of the Union address. In this address, of the many bold statements he made, President Johnson asserted, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, prevent it.” Honestly, the verbiage used was spot on; he hit the proverbial “nail on the head,” but the problem wasn’t with the language, but with the strategy.
He correctly identified that poverty has more than one symptom, but in failing to address and provide consistent resources to address the most fundamental symptom, he was sure not to cure the disease. According to the National Center of Policy Analysis, since Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” a staggering 22 Trillion dollars (22,000,000,000,000) has been spent on anti-poverty programs. This dollar amount is 3 times the amount spent on all the wars in American History!
The Great Misunderstanding is that in “theory” we know poverty is more than a financial or material outcome, yet in practice, we throw out that principle and execute a strategy based almost entirely upon fixing peoples’ financial and material maladies. Hence, if we misunderstand what the root cause of the multi-symptom disease of poverty really is, we are then doomed to continue placing bandages upon gunshot wounds.
We are attempting to place bandages upon gunshot wounds because...
We haven't accepted the reality that poverty is more spiritual than material.
We haven't accepted the reality that poverty is more internal than external.
We haven't accepted, or I dare say we don't want to accept, that poverty is more abstract than concrete.
No doubt you've heard some variation of the phrase, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime." This statement has made a very strong assumption, which is the essence of poverty. This statement assumes the man "actually wants to learn to feed himself!" Depending upon a persons' cultural condition and cultural history, he or she could have been shaped to rely upon others for fish as opposed to learning to fish and thereby providing for him or herself.
What if for generations this individual was culturally conditioned that scarcity is the norm due to the gross absence of basic needs within that society.
What if for generations this individual was culturally conditioned that daily survival was the appropriate response to life?
What if for generations this individual was culturally conditioned that the government had the job of providing for the daily needs of the people?
Each of the above examples--and many others unmentioned--affect the spirit of the people so disposed. Examples such as these take on different shapes and forms depending on the country and immediate conditions he or she was exposed. These conditions affect that part of humanity that produces our vitality, optimism, and assertiveness in providing for ourselves. They affect the human spirit.
We are attempting to apply a minor remedy to a culture-threatening disease when we ignore the spirit of man and the spiritual forces that promote poverty. It is my aim in the book Contending with the Spirit of Poverty to provoke a grassroots movement of people who will...
discover the multi-symptom disease of poverty,
honestly address the specific symptoms in his or her own life,
and courageously lead others through the same journey.