The problem of poverty is both perplexing and perpetual. It’s plagued humanity since the beginning of time, and despite the posturing and protests, lacks simple solutions.
Years ago I had the opportunity to visit an inner city ministry in Atlanta, Ga. on several occasions, observing firsthand how leaders there were striving to help equip down-and-outers to one day become up-and-outers. In the process of gathering information for articles I wrote about this work for various publications, I gained some unexpected insights.
I’ll never forget, for instance, touring a ministry-supported home goods store.
Merchandise at the store had been donated, so it could be sold at greatly discounted prices to low-income residents of the community. I met a young man who had been working there for a few weeks, carrying out whatever responsibilities he was assigned. Having been told it was his first-ever job, I asked him what he had learned. His response caught me off guard: “I learned how to use a ruler, and that I need to show up on time.”
As I thought about it, however, what he said shouldn’t have been so surprising. Think about it: If you don’t have much, there’s no need to measure it. And if you have nowhere that you must be, what difference does it make what time you get there? This helped me to realize that lifting folks from poverty involves more than telling them, “Get a job.” Because lacking basic life and job skills, in many cases not even knowing how to fill out a job application or conduct oneself in a job interview, many hurdles stand in the way of being able to obtain suitable employment.
But perhaps my greatest insight into the broad and complex dilemma of helping the poor was an observation from Bob, the ministry leader. He said simply, “The greatest poverty is the inability to give.” He had seen this vividly during the Christmas holidays in the ministry’s initial years, when they would go to different homes and bring gifts for the children. Their motivation, of course, was to ensure that the kids wouldn’t wake up on Christmas morning without any presents to open.
The moms were always receptive and appreciative, but dads were rarely seen. For them, having someone bring gifts for their children was a painful reminder of their own failure to provide for the material needs of their families. Unwittingly, generosity from others only intensified the awareness of their poverty.
Wisely, the ministry changed its strategies and developed many ways for enabling the disadvantaged to effectively help themselves and protect their dignity in the process.
Ironically, studies have shown that increase in material wealth does not result in a corresponding increase in willingness to give. In fact, one study of giving patterns revealed that proportionately, the poor were inclined to give 44 percent more of what they had, than wealthy people. So keenly aware of their own poverty, they were typically more highly motivated to help when they saw others in need.
We see a powerful example of this in the Scriptures: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:41-44).
If anyone could have offered an excuse for not giving, it was this widow. She gave all she had, as meager as it was, not holding back even a single cent. And yet, it’s likely she did not feel any pangs of regret. Despite her impoverishment, she was a “cheerful giver,” as 2 Corinthians 9:7 describes it.
This is not the only biblical illustration of poor people displaying extravagant giving. Earlier in his letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul points to “the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints…they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).
We tend to perceive poverty as the inability to acquire “stuff,” whatever and whenever we want. But could it be that, as my friend Bob said years ago, the greatest poverty indeed is the inability to give? And as we participate in helping the poor to one day help themselves, we’re enabling them to escape this most profound, most painful aspect of poverty?
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Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly published, ”Marketplace Ambassadors”; “Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace”; “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” A weekly business meditation he edits, “Monday Manna,” is translated into more than 20 languages and sent via email around the world by CBMC International. The address for his blog is www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.