The Paradox of Poverty

The great unsolved paradox of poverty is … how can anyone help. For to stay out of poverty at the very least requires principally an attitude of self-reliance (well yes I do know there are some other requisites but with out that it all counts for naught). But how can one be helped to discover within one self personal self-reliance. For aid given freely will serve to foster dependency, not exactly what one needs to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Therein lies the paradox.

Social program developed since the end of WW II, it seems to me foster exactly the wrong attitude. They, for the most part, without exception are designed to build dependency and squash self-reliance. There are “training” programs … but what happens when the “going gets tough”, but those people are trained to look for assistance and aid exactly the wrong place to look, that is to say not to themselves. So that doesn’t work.

However, equally misguided perhaps is the response on the right. There the call is for basically benevolent neglect. To provide a safety net so low that none will die, but just as importantly none will wish to remain willingly. I have called for such things in my somewhat whimsical “King for a Day” essays. While I am convinced that charity is best kept out of the hands of the polis because mainly because by doing so it tends to dry up and discourage personal acts and impulses to charity more than it helps it still remains true that loving my neighbor when I am have means and there are poor means action is demanded. But to do what? How do I love these neighbors of mine?

Do we try to act as “parents” to these adults. Trying to do the same things that parents do when teaching their children to be self reliant. I’m not convinced that’s the right answer. For children by their very nature when growing up naturally strain at the leash wishing to test themselves in the wide world. But adults, trapped by social circumstances to be trained that they can rely on the state and that by practical circumstances that they have little chance to succeed. It is indeed harder to teach “old dogs new tricks”. So how do we teach or convince them that they need to depend on themselves. That they need to strive, learn, scheme, plan, figure the angles, and work hard to get what they want for themselves and their children. That the quick fix isn’t real. And all those things that the rest of us “advantaged” folk take for granted. How do you teach someone in poverty that sometimes you need to work a 36 hour shift or a 90 hour work week to “get the job done”? To take pride in his work? When what he wants it the quick fix. To win big. To get lucky in the lottery of life. If you don’t learn this by watching your parent how do you teach it to a culture, to a people?

The sad part of it is, while this may be one of the more pressing issues left in our society today we have no answers and at the same time right and left cling equally tightly each to their own badly flawed solutions. Answers which don’t work and we (in our hearts) know it. I think we have to discard our dependence on solutions which don’t work and look for new ones (or old ones?). I wish I had an aha! moment and could say … well we could try X. But I don’t. We must go on searching.

It is also clear that in New Orleans, poverty is not the whole answer to what happened there. There are deeper structural problems going to explain the breakdown of civility. After the tsunami poor people were stranded without in great numbers, but they didn’t turn to rapine and pillage. Paul wrote in Romans that suffering produces endurance and endurance character. But, while the poor are miserable in their state in our country by any historical measure they surely don’t suffer greatly. Obesity and type 2 diabetes threatens their health not starvation. Few lack television, cell phones or the necessities of life. Perhaps what they lack is purpose and meaning. Perhaps the “right” is correct, but not daring enough. That we need to lower the “safety net” low enough that one suffers real privation when one stumbles and falls … if nothing else to build the character one needs in life when one recovers. But, I’m not daring (and I daresay neither is any elected official) enough to really follow through with that suggestion.

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  1. Tom Gilson says:

    Though Jesus said we’ll always have the poor with us, I’m encouraged to know that there are people finding answers to these hard questions. Not quick, easy answers, but effective ones. One such group that I’m very acquainted with is Here’s Life Inner City ( Their ministry is a mix of partnering with churches, building leadership in the inner city, providing compassionate resources, character and skill development, and sharing the Good News of Christ, all with an attitude of humility and respect. It’s not easy, but it’s making a demonstrable difference.

  2. Hi Mark and Hammer,

    I do find what Mark wrote very interesting. We can’t come to the right conclusion without asking the right questions. We also can’t come to a proper conclusion if our assumptions are unreasonable.

    Some individual cases of poverty are solved with the solution of government assistance and some individual cases of poverty are solved by withholding government assistance. There is not one solution that fits all and it is impossible to completely solve the poverty problem. A society that rewards achievement will always have some who do not achieve and end up at the bottom.

    Government solutions would work better if government officials were allowed discretion in deciding how individuals are helped. However, government officials will never be allowed discretion as long as advocates can make a charge of discrimination and racism. The advocates hurt those who they claim to want to help.

  3. Mark M says:

    Two other thoughts come to mind:

    First, this Paradox is not unique to poverty. You’ve hit upon the fundamental paradox of a human culture: balancing what is right for the individual with the ramifications to society.

    Imagine a pregnant teenage girl. In the past she might have been kicked out of her home, left to fend for herself. Terrible. The best thing for the girl and the child is to help her, offer forgiveness and welcome her back into the family. But others see this and learn getting pregnant isn’t so bad. A generation or two later and teen pregnancy runs rampant.

    Letting the children of the rich inherit all that wealth tax free is good for the individual, but leads to a class of people who grow dependent on that wealth, assume their position of power is natural and right and somehow deserved.

    Letting individuals buy cars that consume huge quantities of gas per mile….

    Making it easier for couples to get out of bad or abusive marriages….

    You get the idea. Note that neither liberal nor conservative philosophies seem to emphasize individuals versus society in any consistent way, they just pick and choose based on their own sets of biases.

    I wish I had an easy answer that fit all these dilemmas, but I don’t. It’s a balance. I think there are certain minimum levels for both the individual and society we should all agree on, though. You don’t let people starve. Period. You don’t encourage the formation of aristocracies. But beyond that it’s seems to be just a case of maximizing the good while minimizing the bad on a case by case bases.

  4. Mark M says:

    (And yes, there was a second point and no, I don’t remember what it was. I think I was going to draw a comparison between the poor who grow up dependent on society and the very rich who grow up dependent on their inheritance. Not sure…)

    (To think I gave up blogging due to lack of time, but end up spending just as much time commenting on other peoples site. Not to bright on my part…)

  5. Mark says:

    Mark M,

    Actually I think the paradox isn’t the balancing of what is right for the individual against what is right for the state. For self reliance of individuals is what is good for both self and state. The question is how the state might inculcate that virtue in its citizens in which it is lacking.

    However, if you really think that the matter is individual vs state, perhaps we have run across another divide between left and right in that perhaps you see self-reliance in a different light than I.

  6. Mark M says:

    Self reliance is good for both, of course. Not getting knocked is good for all young girls as well. That wasn’t really the point.

    I’m surprised you used the word “state”. I used the word “society”. I’m not quite sure why the switch, though I guess they are close enough.

    But really, the more I think about it the paradox isn’t so much individual versus state, it’s compassion given versus compassion expected. Or something like that.

  7. Mark says:

    Mark M,
    I guess I “switched” state and society because society doesn’t make policy, the state does.