Some More Thoughts on Poverty

In my last post On Having Stuff I talked about the type of mental poverty inherent in holding onto stuff you don’t need, because you fear you might need it later. In this post please bear with me as I put on my professional hat. As a person who works in the area of poverty relief in the third world, [see] I want to come at this again from a different angle.

As I said last week, being poor really isn’t simply tied up in how much stuff you do or don’t have.

An assessment of the degree of poverty based on how much stuff someone has misses the fact that poverty is more of a mindset than a condition. Poverty is manifested by the inability to find a way out of an untenable situation. Put Bill Gates, with all his knowledge and business experience in a rural village in Thailand with the exact same resources as all of the other villagers and it would not be long before the village was different, and he was running a successful business that gave people something they need, or want, and accumulating wealth again.

The poor don’t think that way. The poor think only of what they can get right now. Systemic poverty can cause cultural shortsightedness, the inability to plan beyond the next harvest, the next season. Imagine an entire culture that is only able to think in the present, because the future has always been so uncertain. It’s the constant tyranny of what is urgent governing daily decisions and crowding out what is best for the long term.

It’s not just people in the 3rd world who do that. How many people do you know who are in over their heads with credit card debt because they got what they could, when they could, because they thought that if they waited until they could really afford it they never would?

How many people do you know who blow a big paycheck on stuff that they want, without putting any of it away for a rainy day, or toward anything that could help them toward more long term financial stability over time?

It’s a mentality of feast or famine, with no thought for the long term because things will never really change. If we have, we get stuff we can hold onto, because we don’t know when we might have again. It’s just as impoverished a way of thinking as a peasant who can’t think or plan past the next rice harvest.


Of course, most of the world’s truly poor never have a paycheck to blow, and most work very hard and never get ahead because of the systemic injustices built into their culture. Before Muhammad Yunus pioneered micro-finance, the poor were at the mercy of corrupt moneylenders who charged impossible interest and imposed restrictions tailored to keep the people they lend to impoverished and dependent. It is still the case for millions worldwide.

In fact, it’s still the case here. Ever seen those money lending places? They give you pay day loan advances, and also offer check cashing and other services for those who don’t have a bank account. Would you take out a loan if you needed to pay back 20% in interest? That’s how those places make money, by preying on the poor and desperate.

But there are also those who use those places, not because of utter necessity, but because the habit of spending money before they have it is deeply ingrained. We all do it to some extent. We imagine what we will do with the money coming in, well, anything extra, we know what we’ll do with most of it, pay bills, and buy groceries, etc. Most of us have it spent already in our head, long before we get it. But some people actually spend it, in advance, leaving nothing in reserve. In this case, poverty is in their mindset, more than their check book, and the poverty that they remain in is one that they perpetuate without realizing it.

Poverty is not simple, and there are many factors that contribute to it. One of the things we can change, however, is how people think.

When Aaron is in villages in Thailand talking to people he starts asking them, “What does your community need? What could you provide for your community that would help them, and become a business that could help you and your family as well?”

Not having enough can become a habit of thought that even those who are well off fall prey to. We know it in one of it’s manifestations as keeping up with the Jones’s. In rural Thailand near the Burmese border, where they have experienced missionaries and aid for centuries, the habit of thought we encounter most often is that they need a westerner to help them, they can’t do it on their own.

The idea that they could do something to help their community, and to bring a change is revolutionary, but once they grab onto it it’s amazing to see what changes in them. They come up with great, practical ideas. They start to think long range, 4 or 5 years down the road even. It’s so moving to hear them say, “We had no idea we could do something to help the children among us, to help each other.”

So the question for myself, and for you today is this. Do I truly not have enough, or is thinking I don’t simply a habit I’ve fallen into? Do I really need that thing I can’t afford, that I’m struggling to pay for? And is there something I can do to help the people around me, even with what I have right now, and with where I am? What if we stopped looking at what we can’t do, and don’t have, and started making the most of what we do have and can do? Would that make a difference?

Because I’m telling you, if generations poor and persecuted hill tribe villagers can think of things they can do to help their community, to start a business, to make a change, I’m certain that we can do it too.

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