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3 Reasons to Stop Referring to ‘The Poor’

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“Every single person on the face of the planet is created in God’s image. Everybody has the same heavenly Father. Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility. I don’t care what dirt hovel you’re living in, in Brazil or Mexico City or Manila. You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that’s waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.” –Rudy Carrasco in PovertyCure

God has called each of us to whole-life transformation and redemptive stewardship, no matter who we are and where we are in life. This relies on a basic understanding of human dignity and a fundamental belief in our identity as co-creators with God the Father. Far too often, we distort or confuse this framework in small and subtle ways, often unknowingly and with well intentions.

Out of a concern for these types of subtle distortions, HOPE International, a Christian network of microfinance organizations, recently altered its mission statement, removing “the poor” and replacing it with “families.” Their mission is now “to invest in the dreams of the poor families in the world’s underserved communities as we proclaim and live the gospel.”

The reason: CEO Peter Greer and HOPE’s Board no longer wanted to box people in according to their present situation or status. “I want to identify them as who they really are,” Greer writes, “individuals with inherent worth, capacity, and dignity. Individuals deeply loved by their Creator and full of explosive potential. Individuals with a bright hope and a future.”

Greer outlines three reasons for making the change and why the rest of us should avoid applying the label as well:

  1. It further entraps people in poverty. By referring to people as “the poor” we are defining them by their current situation, and not by their potential. We dismiss their value. We reinforce their financial poverty, and miss the many things that they do have. Language matters, and defining people by their financial poverty traps them in their current condition and crushes the hope that life could get better. It kills dreams. I never want to insinuate that someone’s identity is tied to their financial situation.
  1. It reinforces a strictly financial definition of poverty. When we ask North Americans “What is poverty?” they respond by talking about the material ramifications of poverty. Not enough food. No clean water. Living on less than $1 per day. These answers wildly differ from the results from a World Bank study of 60,000 people living in financial poverty around the world. When asked about poverty, instead of talking primarily about physical issues, individuals in financial poverty responded by highlighting the social and psychological effects of living on less than $1.25 a day. They talked about feeling an overwhelming sense of shame. They spoke of powerless, voiceless, and hopeless. They talked about fear and isolation. “The poor” is a term that reduces poverty to a financial number, and yet people living under its crushing weight understand that poverty is about so much more than finances.
  1. It makes us feel that we are not poor. By calling other people “the poor”, we automatically imply that we are rich. Financially, this may be true. However, when using a broader [and I humbly submit, more accurate!] definition of poverty, we realize that it’s possible to be financially poor, but relationally rich. It’s also possible to be financially rich, but spiritually poor. The more that I’ve listened to myself label the families we serve as “the poor,” the more I’ve begun to feel that we are actually part of the problem by defining the people we serve by what they lack. In so doing, we have been unwittingly reinforcing the very problem we are furiously working to solve. To label people as “the poor” dismisses precious men and women that bear the Imago Dei. It strips them of their dignity and makes them a statistic.

It may seem like a small adjustment, and in the big picture, we’re not likely to rid such labels from our vocabulary any time soon. Indeed, in some situations, it will be necessary and helpful. But on the whole, and particularly in the world of Big Philanthropy, Greer’s advice is a good reminder that throughout our efforts to alleviate poverty, our primary focus should be on empowering others based on who God has already created them to be.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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