Over the years I have heard many myths about poverty spoken as if they were truth. One of of the most common is that people are poor because they’re lazy.
A few years back the World Bank conducted a study of the experiences of people in developing countries who had escaped extreme poverty.It found two common factors – opportunity and initiative. The ‘poor are lazy’ argument assumes there is plenty of opportunity but that the poor lack initiative.
The reality is that people who are poor more often than not have plenty of initiative but lack opportunity. They live in economies that don’t generate sufficient jobs and where wealth is captured by an elite; experience poor health, infrastructure and education; are frequently the object of discrimination; and are often living in areas prone to conflict and disaster.
For example, I visited a village in Cambodia a few years back where all the residents had been illegally evicted from their land. They were ‘compensated’ with land many miles from the city and without basic services such as clean water, safe sanitation, doctors and schools. Too far from the city to continue working there they were trying to carve out a new life under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
This is why development focuses on the creation of opportunities – at the macro level by building economies that generate jobs and distribute wealth equitably; creating political systems that are democratic, liberal and accountable; building infrastructure and health and education systems. At a grass roots level development focuses on helping communities mobilise the assets they have to build their well-being.
Christians who take the poor are lazy line often quote the book of Proverbs – “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.” (Proverbs 10). Unfortunately this misunderstands Proverbs and ignores the rest of Scripture. Proverbs is filled with pithy sayings that apply to some situations but not to others. The reader is invited to consider how and where these apply. Moreover Proverbs is providing this advice to the king and those in his court, to people in positions of privilege and opportunity. So to say to this group that the person who is lazy will become poor but the person who is diligent will become wealthy is generally true. But it is far from the whole truth, certainly for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Thus we also find these sayings in ProverbsAn unplowed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away (13:23)
Better the poor whose walk is blameless than a fool whose lips are perverse (19:1)
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops (28:3)
The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern (29:7)
These suggest poverty is often the result of injustice and that the poor person, far from being lazy, can be quite blameless in character.
When we turn to the rest of Scripture we discover that when describing poverty the focus is firmly on injustice. People are poor because their legal rights are ignored by the powerful, who neglect, exploit and oppress them.This is what the Lord says:
For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
Isaiah 10 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
James 5 The bible operates with the conviction that all people should have access to the earth’s resources (Genesis 1), but that the powerful organise social-political-economic systems to serve their own interests at the expense of the poor. As a result the poor of Israel are often portrayed as those who place their hope in God.But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.
And God is portrayed as protecting their interestsFor the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing.
Deuteronomy 10 Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
I have seen this in Cambodia where people have been evicted from their land as it is illegally sold out from under them; in Tanzanian slums where moneylenders provide loans to desperate people at exorbitant rates of interest and then possess their assets when the indebted can’t repay the loan; in the garment factories of Bangladesh where women are paid poverty level wages making cheap Tshirts for the Australian market.
Can laziness cause poverty? Yes it can, but this is very much a minor part of the biblical analysis. The core of the biblical approach is that poverty is the result of injustice.
Though ancient, this analysis is just as relevant today. At heart the lack of opportunities available to the world’s poor occur because of the misuse of power – men who discriminate against women; cultural majorities that marginalise minorities; the stigmatising of people; corruption; tax fraud and exploitative labour practices by multinationals; lack of generosity; and more. How important then that we work to reverse these abuses of power, including our own, and towards a world of opportunity for all.