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Poverty of Relationship
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Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here's this week's!

We live in the one of the best countries in the world. We have unspoiled nature, but we also have beautiful, clean cities. We have freedom. We have relative prosperity. We have health.

And so it’s jarring when we see homeless people. How can we have such poverty in such a wonderful country? Across Canada we have opened homeless shelters and food banks. We have public housing. We have breakfast and lunch programs for poor children. We provide welfare, job retraining, legal aid, and more.

Yet despite decades of these programs, poverty is still with us. And so we continue to throw money at the problem. In fact, we throw so much money at it that we could likely bring each and every poor person out of poverty just by giving them the cash we spend on programs—though I wouldn’t advocate that. Despite poverty programs, poverty isn’t disappearing.

I recently heard a talk by Tim Huff, an author and homeless advocate, who posited that the reason we’re not curing poverty is that we don’t understand it. We think we’re talking about poverty of resources—people don’t have enough money, or food, or stuff, and so we try to help them get more money or food or stuff.

But what if that’s not really the problem? He went on to explain that in his work with the homeless, he has discovered that they suffer far less from poverty of resources than they do from poverty of relationship. When people have real community, they will weather storms like job loss or family breakdown. On the other hand, if someone has no community, then what should be a relatively minor setback can cause them to lose their home.

I was stunned as I listened to him, because it made so much sense and yet I had never thought of it that way. And my mind wandered to two women I know only peripherally. Both became pregnant at age 20. There, though, the similarity ends. One has supportive parents, who have set up the nursery, and are caring for the baby so that she can go to school for the next few years to become a nurse. The other has alcoholic parents. She is now living in a subsidized apartment, caring for her baby alone.

I thought of my own mother, who was penniless when my father left. We lived with grandparents for a time and then with my aunt and uncle for a few years while my mother got on her feet. We had a church community that helped with baby-sitting and the occasional gift when she needed it. And my mother managed to thrive, without ever going on welfare. Today, she spends her retirement days trying to be that community to other women who need help.

The problem with attacking poverty as a money issue, Tim said, is that you’re dealing with the symptom, and not the root of the problem. The real issue is that we have a breakdown of family and of community. Those with a close family and a close community are not harmed by occasional financial setbacks. Those with chaotic families are, because everybody is too busy dealing with their own issues to help you with yours.

We can keep throwing money at the problem, but it’s not going to fix it, because it’s not a poverty of resources. It’s a poverty of relationship. And government can’t replace the family. Until we can rebuild families, and rebuild communities, there will always be people who fall through the cracks. We need strong families to raise strong people, and today those are in short supply. So if you want to help with poverty, build your marriage. Raise great kids. Encourage community at your school or your church. Let’s build relationships, which really are the best weapon to fight poverty.

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At 10:25 AM , Blogger Whitney said…

GREAT post! The reasonings behind homelessness are vast and often misunderstood. I fully agree that one part is the lack of supportive relationships. On a similar matter, I think of the many teens with such loose family ties. The common solution in the church is to give them a hip community of peer. (Lost peer leading a lost peer- oh my). Instead of throwing programming at them, what if we instead aimed to show them something their likely looking for- the acceptance, affections and support of family. We can be a mother to the motherless or father to the fatherless. Programming is all well and good and I wouldn't necessarily advice for it to be removed, but I would pose the challenge for us to take what we've been given in family and instill that into others. Build up family. Build up communities. Just a thought. :)


At 12:35 PM , Blogger Mary said…

This is so very, very true. Nothing can replace the family. What is sad, too, is that many of the homeless people we (my husband is a pastor) have dealt with are mentally ill. They have been turned out of mental institutions due to lack of funding (or they cannot be forced to stay there) and there is no money for medications or people to supervise to see that they take the medications if they can get them. Such people have often worn out their welcome with their families and nobody is going to hire them, and people don't want to take in the mentally ill for obvious reasons. Homeless shelters are often dangerous places, too. We noticed that many of the homeless people preferred to be "on the move," rather than stuck in one place, and they will often ask churches for money for a motel room for a couple of nights (which we gave them). A sad situation, indeed. To get back to what you said about families, though, for average individuals undergoing hard times, yes, there is nothing like family. This is why the Apostle Paul said that if a widow have family (grandsons, nephews) they should help them and not burden the church, and I would add: and not burden the government.


At 1:19 PM , Anonymous kat said…

I grew up in Brooklyn Md during the 50s and 60s. We lived in Government owned rentals, The Projects as they call them. Mother&Father both worked,and 7 kids. My Aunts, Uncles,Cousins& Grandmother ALL lived in the same neighborhood. We were White, Catholic, Working Class. And We also lived on government assistance-Welfare handouts, like food stamps. Yes there are homeless people and many of them suffer from drug addiction, mental problems and don't want family help,and some just don't have families. But that is NOT the whole picture of POVERTY in the United States or in any other country for that matter. Lack of education to be able to get anything more than a low paying job and lack of jobs is the number 1 reason for poverty.The cost of living goes up and up but wages are stagnent.My husband and I were able to raise a family without ever needing assistance, but young people today, even with educations, sometimes cannot even afford rent or put food on the table because of rising costs.
Having more kids than you can afford doesn't help.In that case, Poverty breeds poverty.


At 2:33 PM , Blogger Mary said…

There are a lot of working poor, who, like the last commentor said, are unable to get anything other than a minimum wage job, which will not support a family. Some of these folks end up homeless, too. The prices of even crummy apartments is outrageous. And with a non-growing economy, there is a lack of jobs and fierce competition for good ones. A growing economy sure would help.


At 5:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

My question is, how do you build that relationship? I have lived in the same community for 11 yrs. When my husband left, no one -- not one person, from my church community stepped out to help me! The pastor suggested going on welfare and said "That's what it was there for!" I do have a supportive family, and have since remarried, but I long for strong relationships with other women my age but everyone seems so busy with their own lives, no one wants to be a friend/support. It would be such a blessing to have someone to trade babysitting with, for example, but that kind of thing doesn't happen. Not sure how to facilitate growth in that area/way. It isn't easy feeling alone and isolated plodding along trying to make the best of things, etc.
Denise in Small Town Saskatchewan


At 12:17 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…


This is PROFOUND. I can see how that has worked out in our own lives, many times. And we've been on both ends of it, to be sure... the giving and the receiving.

My heart goes out to those, like Denise, who don't feel they have that community. When we felt very alone in a church, a retired missionary and dear friend counseled us to be the friend we wanted to find. And pray :D


At 3:57 PM , Blogger Cherish said…

What insightful words! I'd never thought of that.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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