Poverty’s Devastating Effects

I can still remember the feelings of curiosity, confusion and discomfort I felt as a watched the young boys. “What did those kids want?” I wondered.

As a child visiting Cuba with my parents, I was startled when some boys at a city park opened our taxi doors, then held out their hands. Later I asked my mother, “Did they work there? Did they want a tip?” She gently told me they were begging. My young upper-middle-class North American sensibilities were jolted by the harsh reality of poverty I had never seen.

One summer during university, while visiting Tijuana, Mexico, I was stunned to see people living in the city dump. Later that summer, I spent time with a friend in one of Miami’s ghettos. One day, as I drove away, I noticed an ambulance headed toward the apartment building near where my friend hung out. The next day, my friend told me a woman had shot the man who was trying to seduce her, then she shot herself. Shocking as that news was for me, almost as much so was my friend’s nonchalance. He seemed accustomed to events like this.

Those experiences kindled my personal interest in this theme. What is poverty? Why does it exist? How does it destroy minds and souls as well as bodies? What is a biblical perspective on poverty? And what should we do about it?

Income level and standard of living are often-used but insufficient measures of poverty. Some townships in South Africa and shanty towns in the Philippines make some North American housing projects seem like the Ritz.

Localized “relative deprivation” (i.e., large socioeconomic disparity between the poor and middle class) can multiply feelings of low self-esteem. Many social scientists emphasize psychological manifestations of poverty. Yale psychologist Ira Goldenberg defined poverty as “a psychological process which destroys the young before they can live and the aged before they can die. . . . [It] is a condition of being in which one’s past and future meet in the present—and go no further.”{1}

The precise economic line may be difficult to draw, but poverty’s effects can be devastating. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs says, “More than 8 million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. Every morning our newspapers could report, ‘More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty.'”{2} They die from disease, lack of medicine, unsafe drinking water.

Homeless Assistance

The little girl was sleeping so peacefully on a cot in the nursery playroom. As I watched her, I imagined how she might have felt only a few days earlier, maybe trying to sleep in the tropical heat under a noisy highway overpass. Now she was inside a lovely, air conditioned room with nice toys. She and families just like hers could feel safe, clean and protected at Miami’s Homeless Assistance Center, a facility organized and run through a coalition of community leaders, government agencies, churches, and faith-based organizations.

By its twelfth year, Miami’s Community Partnership for Homeless had helped over twenty-seven thousand men, women and children leave the streets for a better life. Their Homeless Assistance Centers are a community success story in which private and public sectors teamed to create a national model for eliminating homelessness. Would you believe all this started from a church Bible class?

My friend Alvah Chapman served Knight Ridder Publishers as president and chairman for fourteen years. (Knight Ridder owned, for example, the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose Mercury News.) At retirement, he and his wife Betty participated in a thirty-nine-week church Bible study class that required personal application.

Alvah had become distressed observing the plight of Miami’s homeless and the lack of community leadership. He recalls, “The county said it was a city problem. The city said it was a county problem. And the Chamber of Commerce was not sure it was their problem.”{3} The Chapmans decided to tackle homelessness. “The commitment to ‘do something’ was very strong” in their hearts, he explains: “We made a commitment to our [Bible] class and to our God that we would together provide leadership to the homeless problem in Miami.”{4}

Today the Homeless Assistance Centers{5} they founded provide meals, showers, clothing, temporary housing, laundry facilities, health care, transportation, and job training—helping residents get back on their feet with dignity. The success rate for departed residents has been as high as sixty percent, considered remarkable in this field. Churches and synagogues have provided evening meals, companionship, and encouragement.

Often the poor feel trapped in poverty with no way out. Vicious circles breed feelings of worthlessness and despair. Drunkenness, violence, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases are just some of the physical manifestations of coping with life out of control. Efforts like the Homeless Assistance Centers can help break the cycle of poverty.

Helping the Total Person

Poverty brings multiple problems: physical, psychological, and spiritual. Which should we emphasize in seeking solutions? Consider three approaches.

1. The Outside-In Approach changes circumstances to alleviate stress factors. Education and job training can enhance employment and living standards, thus decreasing psychological problems. Right? Not necessarily. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis argued that an elimination of physical poverty may not by itself eliminate the culture of poverty.{6} Perhaps you know some wealthy but unhappy people.

2. The Inside-Out Approach emphasizes counseling to encourage self-help. Attitude change is important, but if the economic system blocks options, what then?

3. The Total-Person Approach blends the other two, treating humans as physical, psychological, and spiritual creatures. The often-overlooked spiritual area, properly tapped, can influence both poor and rich.

John Perkins, an African-American, left his poor rural hometown of Mendenhall, Mississippi, vowing never to return. His brother had been shot by a policeman in that racially oppressed town. Later, Perkins placed his faith in Christ and returned to Mendenhall to help.

The organization he founded facilitated an inexpensive health care center, cooperative farms, a cooperative food store, house construction, tutoring, and raising college scholarships. Perkins’ emphasis has been on helping local people help themselves. At the same time he’s said, “I believe that the only commitment able to bring [interpersonal and community] healing is a commitment to Jesus.”{7}

Jesus of Nazareth emphasized the total person. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He also told people how they could find meaning and fulfillment through faith in Him. Many Christian development programs have a similar focus, operating on the time-honored philosophy that if you give someone a fish you can feed them for a day; if you also teach them how to fish you can feed them for a lifetime.

World Relief, a Christian organization, provides worldwide disaster relief as well as self-help efforts like well-digging and agricultural training. Their microenterprise development programs establish community banking, savings and lending programs to help the poor become self sufficient. For example, a $75 loan to a Cambodian grandmother allowed her to expand her small home-front stand. She repaid the loan in full, entitling her to another, slightly larger loan. Eventually, she could support her sixteen grandchildren and serve as a role model for women in her village.{8}

World Vision, the Salvation Army, and most major Christian denominations have programs to help the poor.

Money and Poverty

We’ve been examining physical, psychological, and spiritual factors related to poverty and its possible remedies. Consider a common question.

Will money given to developing nations solve their poverty problems? Maybe it will help, but the extent depends largely on how the funds are managed. Sadly, Africa, for instance, is replete with examples of crooked officials diverting financial aid and national wealth into their own pockets. For instance, Nigeria’s President Obasanjo estimates that corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion from their people in the decades since independence.{9}

Obasanjo is a follower of Jesus who has tried to root out corruption in his own nation. The New York Times gives a glimpse into the task he still faces. Nigeria export billions of dollars of oil each year and returns thirteen percent of revenues from its states back to the states. The Times notes that “Much of that is siphoned off by corrupt regional officials who often pocket the money or waste it on lavish projects that do little, if anything, for ordinary people. For instance, one state produces a third of Nigeria’s oil and has an annual budget of more than half a billion dollars to spend on its three million people. But most of [that money] goes to white elephants like a mansion for the governor and his deputy.”{10}

On one of my speaking tours to Nigeria, a local doctor told me how businesses had adapted to the common custom of using bribes. Seems they started budgeting bribe money for their traveling representatives to use. The budget item was called public relations. But a problem arose when employees began to pocket the public relations money instead of using it for bribes.

Financial aid givers—nations, businesses and individuals—would be wise to focus on strict accountability measures and perhaps character education programs for government and business leaders and students in such situations.

In fairness, I should note that this corruption caveat has its critics. Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who also heads an ambitious United Nations anti-poverty effort, feels the corruption charge is too often a simplistic explanation for poverty’s root problems. While I feel that corruption is indeed a major concern, I agree with Sachs that poverty is complex and situations differ. Disease plays a significant role. If people are sick with malaria or AIDS, its hard for them to help themselves. Sachs also advocates international commitments to economic assistance, scientific advancement, and justice.{11}

What Can You Do?

Would you believe that by losing weight, you could help the poor overseas? Consider how some upscale U.S. secondary school students made a difference in Zambia.{12}

Student leaders at Wheaton Academy in suburban Chicago had a burden to raise $53,000 from their fellow students for a schoolhouse in Zambia. They found little enthusiasm at first, but then they began to pray regularly. Things took off and they exceeded their goal. Over a three-year stretch, the Christian students raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for HIV/AIDS relief in Africa. Students encourage each other to forgo movies, Starbucks runs, and even Christmas presents and prom dresses.{13} The campus chaplain estimates that ninety percent of students have participated financially to build the schoolhouse and a medical clinic and to feed a villages children for a year. Students feel a personal connection with their Zambian peers. Some have visited the village they support.

Even adults joined the effort. Now, what they did is great. I bet you’re going to like this! It was a weight-loss fundraising campaign, the Zambia Meltdown. Fourteen teachers and administrators lost 460 pounds over 100 days. That brought in $19,000 in pledges for lost weight. And get this: The headmaster and principal each lost 70 pounds.{14}

What can you do to help alleviate poverty? Consider some suggestions:

First, pray. God’s concern for the poor far exceeds our own. Those Wheaton Academy students saw answers to their prayers. (Probably some faculty spouses did, too!)

Second, give. An ancient Jewish proverb says, If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!{15} Many fine organizations can use your donations to effectively fight poverty. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says, “Nobody gets more bang for the buck than missionary schools and clinics, and Christian aid groups like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse save lives at bargain-basement prices.”{16} I would add World Relief, the Salvation Army and your local church to the list.

Third, go. Maybe you can volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or an international mission group. CNN highlighted Campus Crusade for Christ college students spending Spring Break helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. You even may want to devote your life or career to relief and development. It is a worthy cause. I like what Jesus’ mother Mary advised: “Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it.”{17} And another of those ancient Jewish proverbs says, “Blessed are those who help the poor.”{18}


1. “A Nation Within a Nation,” TIME, May 17, 1968, 30.
2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, “The End of Poverty,” TIME, March 14, 2005;
3. Alvah H. Chapman, Jr., “Community Partnership for Homeless, Inc., A Narrated History,” (As recorded in interviews for an oral history project by Dennis P. Kendrick, 2004), 6;
4. Ibid., 8.
5. Community Partnership for Homeless,
6. Oscar Lewis, “The Culture of Poverty,” Scientific American 215:4, October 1966, 25.
7. Christianity Today, January 30, 1976.
8. World Relief newsletter, May 2006.
9. Tony Carnes, “Can We Defeat Poverty?” Christianity Today, 49:10 October 2005, 38ff;
10. Lydia Polgreen, “Blood Flows With Oil in Poor Nigerian Villages,” The New York Times, January 1, 2006;
11. Sachs, loc. cit.
12. Jeremy Weber, “Raising the Compassion Bar,” Christianity Today 49:8 August 2005, 50-52;
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Proverbs 19:17 NLT.
16. Nicholas D. Kristof, “Bush, a Friend of Africa,” The New York Times, July 5, 2005;
17. John 2:5 NASB.
18. Proverbs 14:21 NLT.

© 2007 Probe Ministries

Adapted from Rusty Wright, “Responding to Poverty,” Plain Truth 64:3, May/June 1999, 30-33. Copyright © Rusty Wright 1999. Used by permission.

Rusty Wright, former associate speaker and writer with Probe Ministries, is an international lecturer, award-winning author, and journalist who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565
[email protected]

Copyright/Reproduction Limitations

This document is the sole property of Probe Ministries. It may not be altered or edited in any way. Permission is granted to use in digital or printed form so long as it is circulated without charge, and in its entirety. This document may not be repackaged in any form for sale or resale. All reproductions of this document must contain the copyright notice (i.e., Copyright 2023 Probe Ministries) and this Copyright/Limitations notice.

©2023 Probe Ministries | Designed and Managed by Adquest Creative


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?