Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 08 - understanding poverty is the first step to solving the problem.

Today is Blog Action Day 08, an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. Its aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.

I signed up to participate because poverty is something that we (the Rings) have been thinking a lot about recently. There are a number of things in our lives that have raised our awareness of poverty: our church is located in a poor neighborhood and we've been more involved in outreach ministries; the recent economic hullabaloo has set a lot of people back financially; we live in an economically distressed state (I'm referring to Michigan); and we live in an economically distressed state (I'm referring to the impact that starting your own business has on your income stream). But most importantly, I personally cannot think about the scandalous grace bestowed (undeservingly) upon my by my Lord and Savior and not be moved to take part in His mission to rescue the poor and the suffering in this world. Especially because of all the blessings that I do have that make me rich beyond my wildest dreams (what blessings are those? just take a look at the pictures in this blog. I definitely don't deserve a family as wonderful as Katherine and Lyla).

For me, there are so many things that I thought about posting like how business can be a platform for raising people out of poverty, or how we in America really are shielded from the levels of extreme poverty that exist throughout the world. But I would rather spend this time addressing what I believe is a major weakness in most efforts to address poverty: a limited understanding of what poverty is.

If you're like most people (myself included) then you probably think about poverty solely in terms of financial resources, or rather, the lack of financial resources. Based on that definition of poverty it is natural to think that if we can create mechanism for poor people to get financial resources (charity, job creation, job training, etc. etc.) then they'll be able to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and build a better life for themselves. In perusing the different blogs that are participating in Blog Action Day, I see this way of addressing poverty is prevalent.

Unfortunately, this definition of poverty is limiting and leads to ineffective efforts as is evident in the fact that poverty still exists. In over 50 years of coordinated, global charitable efforts aimed at eradicating poverty, over $2.3 trillion has been spent with little to show for it. Efforts based on false assumptions about poverty are ineffective because they do not speak to the true problem which is bigger than just lack of money. I believe (and hope you will think this way too) that if we are to effectively love and serve the poor, we must approach them from a way that recognizes and understands the nature of the challenge.

Since I am at my core an engineer (thanks Dad!!), I believe the first step of solving any problem is correctly defining the problem. Katherine and I were recently introduced to a book (thanks Stephen and Aunt Vi!) that, more than any other material, opened our eyes to the nature of poverty and provided a simple but powerful framework that has revolutionized how we are going about solving the problem. The book is A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. I highly (HIGHLY) recommend that everyone read this book. I will not try and cover everything that the book goes into but would like to share what (for me) was a mind-blowing revelation about true poverty that shifted my whole paradigm and enabled me to understand poverty in a completely different light. To start, Payne expands the definition of poverty in a way that captures the root of the problem:
Poverty is the extent to which an individual does without resources.

Payne identifies eight vital resources:
1. Financial – having the money to purchase goods and services. While not the only resource involved, it is obviously one of the most crucial for helping persons out of poverty.
2. Emotional – being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. Emotional resources are especially important in helping persons develop the stamina and perseverance necessary to learn and adapt to the new hidden rules and to keep them from slipping into old habit patterns.
3. Mental – having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life. Literacy and other mental and cognitive capabilities enable persons to be
more self-sufficient.
4. Spiritual – believing in divine purpose and guidance. Regardless of one’s particular faith tradition (or lack thereof), spiritual resources help one discover a purpose to living and see oneself as capable and having worth and value.
5. Physical – having physical health and mobility. This again contributes to self-sufficiency.
6. Support systems – having friends, family and backup resources available in times of need. This resource may include emotional, financial, academic, informational or other practical supports, such as babysitting.
7. Relationships/role models – for children especially, having frequent access to adults who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior. Young people especially need positive role models, and relationships have been found to contribute significantly to learning.
8. Knowledge of hidden rules – knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group. As indicated above, remaining unaware of the tacit rules of the middle class may severely hamper one’s ability to achieve success in school or the marketplace.
One other thing that Payne talks about is how there are two types of poverty: Generational and Situational; acknowledging that someone can become poor due to changing circumstances (death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, etc), whereas generational poverty describes families that have been poor for two or more generations. Just this insight alone has helped me to make sense of a lot of the struggles my family has endured since my mother passed away. That single event took key resources away from me and my siblings in at least three different ways:
Emotional - having to deal with the flood of emotions (sadness, guilt, fear, etc.) of the situation;
Spiritual - questioning the core spiritual issues like the purpose of life and seeing ourselves as having value;
Support systems - the loss of probably the biggest anchor in all of our support networks.
Describing our struggles as a struggle with poverty has helped me to understand many of the choices and behaviors in my own life and the lives of my family that I didn't recognize or understand before. It also helps me to understand the depth of the challenges we face and how to address them.

So what? My point in all of this is not to deride efforts to serve persons living in poverty. My point is summed up by Habit #5 of Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Poverty is a serious problem. Billions of people suffer from the oppression, isolation, and depression of living without resources. And if we (whoever we are) are to be part of the solution, then we must truly understand the problem. Please, please read Ruby Payne's book and open your eyes to the poverty that is all around you.

And to everyone who is doing something about it, especially our friends and family who give of themselves, who serve, who work hard, who teach, who train, who parent, who mentor, who pray, who minister, who heal, who encourage, who employ, who inspire, who suffer along side of those in need, who feed, who clothe, who shelter, who love... THANK YOU. My heart breaks when I think about the all of need in this world and I thank each and everyone of you for the hope that you give me through what you give of yourselves. Thank you.