What do you think of when you think of poor people? How does your faith community describe the poor, or do they? How are the poor described in your media sources? The assumption by many is that people are poor entirely because of their own doing. We are told that poor people have made bad decisions, or they are just plain lazy, or they have given themselves to some type of sin.

There are times when those in poverty have done/ do things that place/ keep them in poverty. Individuals do have power in their choices. However, I believe that explanations that place all of the blame on the individuals who are poor are often false, always overly simplistic, and generally dangerous. While placing the blame on the poor certainly makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves (we did it, why can’t they?) , and less compelled to care (those people would just waste my time & money!), that approach offers no hope for the poor and will damage society. Placing all of the blame on the poor does not fit reality.

Let me illustrate with a couple of personal stories:

After graduate school my wife and I went to work with an organization on a start up venture. We knew that working on a start up was risky, but we also knew that it was needed and we thought that the organization was committed to supporting us. The problem is that the organization changed their approach, leaving us without support. We were (really!) poor. In many ways – it was not our fault. How did we recover from that situation? Yes, we worked hard, but we also had friends, family, churches, and government help us. All of those were crucial pieces. We could not have recovered on our own.

We almost lost everything in a cross-country move for work. We signed a contract on our old house. Then we signed a contract for a new house. On closing day, the day after the moving truck left, we learned there was a delay that would be resolved “within a few days.” The sale of our house eventually failed because of wrong doing by the potential buyer, things that were never disclosed to us. We had to live on one side of the country for work. We also had pay for our old house on the other side of the country. We simply could not afford to do that. Then the housing market collapsed, and even after massive price cuts, our house sat on the market for a year. We could have lost everything. In many ways – it was not our fault. How did we get out of that situation? Gracious people stepped up and helped us. It was humbling to accept their help, but we never would have made it on our own.

Sociology, economics, history, scripture, reason, and experience point to the reality that the poor do not bear all of the blame for their situations. Identification of the cause(s) of a problem is always important because it helps us move onto the solution stage. Simply placing the all of the burden of poverty on the poor does not fit reality and will therefore never lead us to real solutions.