A number of year ago I was teaching a Poverty 101 session and we were having a little Q & A at the end when I was asked what should have been a simple question. The woman wanted to know what our goal was in working with our neighbors, specifically what we were trying to help them accomplish economically. The first thought that came to my mind was to talk about upward mobility. But as the words were about to come out of my mouth they just didn’t sound right.
So I thought for a second and said that we were really after upward stability. And that is the idea that your life is more stable today than it was a couple of years ago. And that your life is on a trajectory that it will be more stable a couple of years from now than it is today.
And this idea is about understanding that economic class is really about how stable your life is. When my life is stable and all of my daily needs are met without too much effort, I can think about the future.
But if I live in a constant state of chaos and I spend my life wondering daily how are we going to get enough food today, or how are we going to pay the bills, or get to work then I have little margin to think about the future.
If we can come alongside our families and empower them to provide a more stable environment for their children then those children can begin to look toward their futures with hope. And this is the primary differentiator between children who grow up middle class and those who grow up in poverty, whether they are future-oriented or present-oriented.
And the key to helping present-oriented kids become future-oriented kids is Upward Stability.
In my last post I mentioned that there were two things I want everyone to remember from Poverty 101. The first is that “It’s all about relationships.” The second is that “Poverty is Complex.”
Everyone who has lived in poverty, everyone who studies poverty, everyone who works with those in poverty understands that poverty is about a lot more than money and that there are no simple definitions. And my experience is that attempting to describe it is a little like a blind man trying to describe an elephant from the experience of touching the side of the animal. There will be so much that we miss in our description and in our understanding.
No matter what your source of news, it is likely that you will someday hear a pundit, regardless of their political persuasion, talking about poverty. And they will likely say something like this, “Poverty is caused by…” And they will complete that sentence by articulating only one cause. I always tell people that if they ever hear that, they can stop listening to everything that person has to say, because that “expert” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
And a fully fleshed out understanding of the issue of poverty is so important. Because as the authors of When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out, our definition of poverty will determine how we attempt to address it. Or as they put it, the “Diagnosis Shapes the Prescription.”
If we are going to make of difference in the lives of those living in the cycle of generational poverty we have to humbly approach the subject. We have to study, we have to read, we have to dig deep. We have to seek God’s wisdom. And we have to listen to the voices of the poor, because it is from those children of the King that we will learn the most.
In the day and age we live in, everyone wants to get their information in small chunks that don’t take much time to digest. This is a particular challenge for me as someone whose job it is to teach about complex subjects like poverty. I lead a class called Poverty 101 that takes about sixteen hours to really do well. But I am often asked by churches and groups if I would come and teach the basics of Poverty 101 in an hour. Because I don’t want to miss opportunities to share the work of Shepherd I accept, but it is a difficult challenge for me.
But there are a couple of simple truths that can be boiled down to a sentence or two. During Poverty 101 I tell the class that if they learn nothing else then I want them to remember two things. The first of those two things is that “It’s All About Relationships”.
In any setting, among any people, ministry is about relationships. No significant growth, no significant learning, no significant ministry happens outside of a relationship. When I challenge people to think about the times in their lives that they have grown or learned great lessons, it always comes down to significant relationships, a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a friend.
Empowering families to develop the assets they need to break the cycle of poverty is a lot less about developing great programs than it is about walking through life together. It’s about creating community, community in which families feel supported, loved and valued. It’s about creating a community in which people discover their value, not in what they have but in what they can give. And it’s about helping them see themselves as children of the Creator, and loved beyond anything we could imagine.