Monday, October 11, 2010

What Does it Mean to be "Poor?"

One of the main reasons I wrote Broke is Beautiful was to talk about the things that really bother a person suffering financial reverses. Most of the articles and news features on dealing with a tough economy talk about money. But it is not really the lack of money that keeps people awake at night.

I came across an interesting article in a Christian social justice blog called The Just Life that supports this premise. Even though politicians measure poverty in terms of money, the actual poor describe their situation in terms of power and social status:

A survey conducted in Niger in 2002 by the Office of the Prime Minister asked the poor of that country to describe poverty. Their answers provided the following:

* Dependence was mentioned by 40 percent of the respondents, with some noting that a poor person always had to “seek out others” or to “work for somebody else.”

* Marginalization was noted by 37 percent, who defined a poor person as one who was “alone,” had “no support,” did “not feel involved in anything,” or was “never consulted.”

* Scarcity was included in the poverty definitions of 36 percent, who used statements such as having “nothing to eat,” a “lack of means to meet clothing and financial needs,” a “lack of food, livestock and money,” and “having nothing to sell.”

* Restrictions on rights and freedoms were associated with poverty by 26 percent of the respondents, who stated that “a poor person is someone who does not have the right to speak out” or “someone who will never win a case or litigation against someone else.”

* Incapacity was mentioned in connection with poverty by 21 percent, including the incapacity to make decision, to feed or clothe oneself, or to act on one’s own initiative.

Only 36 percent of the poor in this survey described poverty in terms of material lack [scarcity]. Here, the poor described the experience of poverty primarily in terms of suffering relationships and lack of belonging, dignity and freedom. Similar descriptions were found in a major World Bank study published in 2000, Voices of the poor: Can anyone hear us?

The poor describe poverty in terms of suffering relationships. Relationships are central to a person’s belonging, identity, affirmation and other socio-emotional needs.

(See also my post from two days ago on the social aspects of being broke.)