Monday, February 11, 2008

How do we measure "poverty"?

I've been thinking a lot about poverty these last weeks and months. And just when I think I understand poverty, something doesn't quite line up - a new bit of information or a stray thought challenges my basic assumptions. I know that economists and policy makers differentiate between relative poverty and absolute poverty. Relative poverty is a comparative measure. You're poor if your income falls so far below the median income in your setting. Absolute poverty has to do with whether or not you have the things - food, clothing and shelter - necessary to sustain life. You're poor if you literally don't have enough food to eat or adequate shelter. Of course it's pretty obvious that lots of people - both in wealthy nations and in impoverished nations - manage to survive in horrific circumstances.

But I've long argued that poverty isn't just about what we HAVE or what we LACK in terms of material stuff. I'm convinced that there is a direct link between poverty (broadly defined - that is, not just an economic measure) and dignity. I have two observations to make:

First, it IS possible to live in abject poverty - not enough food or water, insufficient shelter and access to sanitation - and still have dignity. And secondly, it IS possible to live in circumstances of incredible (maybe even obscene) affluence, and yet lack dignity. So, clearly, dignity and economic means are not tied together. There is no necessary correlation.

When I was in Kenya last summer with a Short Term Mission team, we were amazed and humbled by the dynamic faith of many women we encountered. These women - poor by any economic standard - have a strength of faith that we admired and even envied. And, there was no doubt that the vibrancy of their faith was somehow a product of the hardships they have endured. Despite the hardships - or maybe BECAUSE of them - these women are full of hope, and they draw on that hope to mobilize their communities to work together to ease some of the circumstances that are at the root of their hardships. They cheerfully and relentlessly organize their communities to use the resources they have to address the needs that threaten their very lives.

Yes - they are poor. BUT, they have dignity and - I think somehow this is the real issue - they have HOPE.

In contrast, I think of so many middle class people in our communities in Canada, who can and do take so much for granted - water, food, shelter, clothing, heat, medical care, education, transportation, recreation - and yet seem to be perpetually unhappy and stressed out. We never seem to be content. I can't give you a source for this so I can't stand by the accuracy of this figure, but I heard recently that one in three Americans is on anti-depressant medication. What's THAT about?

I'm not suggesting that there is no place for, or need for, anti-depressant medication, but one in three? Maybe that says more about our society than it does about individuals... Check out this short video clip from CNN:

From a JUSTICE perspective, where should we focus our energies - providing funds so that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter OR seeking to understand and foster the less tangible and elusive objective of supporting dignity and hope? Even as I write this, I KNOW that it's not a question of either/or - one or the other. If you're hungry, your stomach wants food. If you lack dignity and hope, your soul longs for wholeness. Maybe this is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and us. Maybe this is what integral mission is really about.

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

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