What causes poverty? That’s the age old question. If we really want to see transformation we need to know what’s causing poverty and therefore how to address it. Keller finishes chapter two by sharing how a multitude of factors work together to create poverty. He illustrates how they work together in Sandtown, a urban poor area in Baltimore, MD.
My experience is with the rural poor. In many ways the same complexity of reasons make up the poverty in these areas. Here’s some of the factors:
- Health – poor hygiene mean the people there are often sick. This comes with a number of costs – lost days of labor, medicine and in the worst cases the costs of sacrifices that are required by the witchdoctor (yes they do exist and are common in these areas.) They will often require a smaller sacrifice such as a chicken and when that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work require greater and greater sacrifices that cost more and more, sending the family bankrupt. Sadly it’s seen as normal to be sick all the time – they haven’t known anything different and make little effort to change their habits and prevent illness.
- Dependence on the gods (but not on God) – most of the rural poor still believe that forces outside their control determine how much they grow. If asked why another person with similar quality land is able to grow more their response is that the other person is lucky. There is little understanding that improved agricultural practices are causing improved crops. With the belief that luck or ‘the gods’ determine what grows comes little incentive to try new, more labor intensive practices that would result in higher yield.
- Low education – many villages have no school, few have a high school so students are forced to travel to get to school. Parents rarely believe in the value of education – they didn’t study so why should their child. For those that do go to school anything beyond primary school is seen as a waste of time. Since their only hope for their child is that they will be farmers like themselves, they can’t imagine why their child would need to learn algebra or history. Those that do get any education usually have the some of the lowest quality teachers (no one wants to work in isolated villages) and have to study in a language they aren’t familiar with. They are pulled out to help in the fields or looking after family members during sowing or harvest season and many children leave school still not able to read or write.
- Poor decision making – with numerical and basic literacy, the poor often make terrible decisions. One example is selling their crop early. Buyers will give you one third of the value of your crop if you sell to them 2 to 3 months early. Desperate farmers will often make that trade little realising how much it is costing them. Borrowing the money needed from a money lender even at 100% per month interest rates would still be much more profitable. Without math skills they aren’t aware of the costs and aren’t able to weigh up options well.
- Exploited – there are far too many people ready to exploit the poor to make money. Everyone from the fertiliser seller that will tell them they need two to three times the recommended amount of fertiliser (they can’t just google up the actual answer), to buyers who collude to force down prices. Once harvest is completed sellers come to town with overpriced goods convincing them to buy. With piles of cash inland and poor decision making, planning skills they easily end up buying TVs or motorbikes that they can’t afford only to sell them again in 3-6 months for half the price when they need the money for food. Beyond that over 90% of the people we work with are in debt – often at interest rates that are crippling – 100% over just a few months. Add to that their inability to calculate the interest and they often end up paying much more than they should.
- Inaccessible crop areas – the crop areas of the poor are usually down walking tracks, meaning everything they harvest has to be carried on their backs. The crops are less fresh when bought by buyers so they give much lower prices. And naturally they are unable to grow as much – there is a limit to how much you can carry out before it starts to rot. Added to that often the crop areas are across rivers that are prone to flash floods. So when the first drop of rain hits they either have to run home or risk being stuck. For many the crop areas are a days walk away so careful tending of the crops is not really possible.
- Alcohol – Alcohol and gambling are common. More income doesn’t necessarily fix problems as extra money too often ends up being spent on things that are actually negative.
- Natural Disasters – The poor are often more vulnerable in times of natural disaster. They don’t have insurance companies to call. If their crop is destroyed it’s another year until they get income. In the meantime they are left going into debt at crazy high interest rates.
There’s many reasons why these people are poor. As Reconciled World we identify the root cause of much of this as Satan’s Lies (or an unbiblical worldview). People don’t bother to improve hygiene because they think it’s normal to be sick, they are fatalistic believing that they can not change their future. They believe in luck as the determining factor and therefore do not value education. With poor education comes opportunity for exploitation and poor decision making. They believe they can’t change the future, they need outsiders and therefore make no effort to make crop areas more accessible. (Once challenged almost every village is able to quickly mobilze those in the community to build bridges and dirt roads.) Without hope or strong Christian beliefs, alcohol and gambling are easy traps. Natural disasters – well we all live in a fallen world. But understanding the importance of not cutting down trees, preparing for the possibility of a disaster etc does help.
The reasons for poverty are complex. But for many if not most, biblical truth together with appropriate life skills can bring radical transformation.Image courtesy of David Warlick / Flickr.com