How We Think Determines What We Think

How we think determines what we think about poverty. When we are willing to look at that concept, we realize how far off base we are with some of the solutions we pronounce, the myths and prejudices we hold to, and our own duplicity in the ongoing persistence of poverty in our community and world.

For example, Dr. Paul Bartle shows us how we delude ourselves with our thinking when he lists five factors that contribute to the continuation of poverty.

  1. Ignorance: We often are not aware of the poverty in our midst. Poverty does not always look like poverty. We do not understand about the tough decisions that people in poverty must make. We often think that it’s the poor people who are ignorant…not us!
  2. Disease: Health is more than treating illness. It requires access to medical care, healthy environments, stress that does not overwhelm. We think, “People who are poor are sick. Just look. Not me!”
  3. Apathy: We may not want to be inconvenienced or disturbed by knowledge of the pain in our broader communities. We may think, “If people who are poor would just care more, then everything would be okay.” Who is it who really needs to care?
  4. Dishonesty: We may plead that we want to help but do not do the actual work of getting to know people in need and what would truly help. Giving a used coat does not help a person conquer the systems that keep them in need. People who proclaim to be “self-made” lie to themselves when they do not realize all the shoulders they stand on to be where they are today. They are dishonest when they do not acknowledge that the technology they require to do their work was not created by them.
  5. Dependency: We think that someone is so poor and needy that we must take care of him/her. The person says, “I’m so poor and needy, you are obliged to take care of me.” As long as we pride ourselves in this dance of dependency, we allow poverty to continue without REAL solutions.

Even how we define poverty, how we think about what poverty is, affects the solutions we commit to. An academic definition I first learned from Dr. Charles Karelis, says that poverty is not having adequate resources to meet basic human needs for a particular time and place. Basic needs are more that a roof, clothing, and food. Meeting basic needs means having the things that create a sense of well-being and security.

The federal definition of poverty is based on a formula that was created in the 1960s. Poverty is simply a number. In 2019 a family of four with income less than $25,750 is officially poor. However, a family with income of $25,750.25 is not poor because they are over the poverty guidelines.

Then there’s the experiential poverty definition. This definition includes things such as wondering who will be your friend today, believing that hard work is hardly worth the piddling money earned, using other people’s clothes, furniture, towels, and shampoo because you don’t have any of your own, being invisible…until “they” need someone to blame, and not having toilet paper…or even a functioning toilet.

When we are willing to push through our usual ways of thinking about poverty, we realize that our “solutions” turn out to be only slightly helpful… if at all.

We want to follow our thinking instincts. Dr. Hans Rosling says that these instincts that lead us astray include the instinct to blame others, to urgently respond to DO SOMETHING…ANYTHING,  to look for the negative understanding of a situation rather than the positives that are inherent, and to generalize about ALL people in a category.

A helpful tool to help us break through some our faulty thinking is the idea that we all have a specific fund of knowledge based on our race, ethnicity, age, gender, education, socio-economic level, life experiences, etc. We tend to stay with people who share our general fund of knowledge. We worship with them, we socialize with them, we live in neighborhoods with them. Because the people we have significant conversations with share our fund of knowledge, more or less, we tend to think the same way. People who do not think like we do, behave like we do, or value what we do are just wrong. They do not have common sense because “everyone” we know already knows this.

The danger of this kind of thinking is obvious when we watch the evening news, when we continue to divide people into red or blue, light skinned or dark skinned, English speakers or those with other languages.

Do you take it for granted that everyone has attended live theater? Gotten the exact glasses frames they wanted? Had a birthday party? Have you ever been the only person of your race in a meeting? Have you ever been watched while shopping? Smelled of kerosene? There are people in our community that have experienced some or all of these. Others only a few.

When we think that the way to address hunger in our community is to provide a meal, we demonstrate that we have little or no understanding of EVERYTHING it takes to be able to eat regularly and nutritiously.  Just some of the things it takes are: adequate funds to purchase food… which requires sustainable work;  time to cook; a kitchen… which requires a safe and affordable home; transportation to get to the store or farmer’s market;  and health to have energy to cook as well as the knowledge for healthy foods. We can LISTEN and be willing to be educated by others’ funds of knowledge that are different from ours. Not good or bad, just different. There are more things to consider…when we are willing to change how we think about poverty.

When we are willing to stop with our ready answers, our solutions that work out of our particular fund of knowledge, our immediate instincts toward US and THEM, and our need to protect ourselves from what we may discover, we can begin to create a world for ALL of us. A world where ALL of us thrive. A world where EVERYONE is welcome. A world where ALL are safe because violence no longer reigns.





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