Who Are The Poor? A Conversation with Natalie Williams

Natalie Williams, whose book The Myth of the Undeserving Poor was released last year, is one of those people who always makes me think, especially when it comes to issues of policy and poverty. So I asked her if we could have a discussion about the nature of poverty and then blog about it, and she very kindly said yes. My main question, as you will see, is what poverty is (as silly as that may sound); her main question is somewhat different. Here's how the discussion went.

Andrew: The question that came to my mind while reading The Myth of the Undeserving Poor was simply: who are the poor? And why? Assuming that biblical imperatives to care for the poor still apply – and I certainly think they do! – we really need to know who they are. Someone without sufficient food and shelter? Someone in a nation without a welfare state? Anyone on less than 60% of the median income? Anyone who has less than I do? It would be really interesting to know how you go about answering those questions – and perhaps more importantly, why you answer them the way you do.

Natalie: I am not sure there’s an easy way to define ‘the poor’ (otherwise you wouldn’t be asking the question!), but I think we can probably all agree that someone who cannot afford to feed, clothe and/or house themselves and their family is poor. In the book we broaden this out, stating that the poor are who are “unable to live viably” within their society. I would argue that if someone living in Britain can afford food, clothing and shelter, but cannot afford bus-fare to the nearest shops or to get to a place of work or to see a doctor, for example, then they are poor, too. Or if they can afford food, clothing and shelter but can’t afford toothpaste and shower gel, for example, I would say they are poor. The question, I suppose, is where we draw the line on what is essential and what is luxury. It’s easy, in our culture, to feel like an iPhone is essential, but most of us would agree that it isn’t. A phone of some description, though — is that essential in Britain today? The UN has stated in recent years that internet access is a human right now, so does that mean someone who cannot access the internet is poor? To a certain extent we have to take context into account, but if a disease has been eradicated in 90% of the world and people are still dying from it in the other 10% because they can’t afford one injection, for example, then I wouldn’t use context as an argument to say the people in the 10% aren’t poor in their society.

This is a really complicated question, but I think the Bible is pretty clear that God is particularly concerned about some specific groups of people — widows, orphans, the fatherless, the oppressed, victims of injustice, etc. We read throughout the Bible of God’s concern for these groups of people, as well as His anger at His children when they don’t take care of them. It seems to me that one biblical characteristic of poverty is powerlessness to raise yourself up out of your circumstances.

And just to add: I think it’s good to explore the question ‘who are the poor?’, but I don’t think it’s the main question Christians should be asking about poverty. My view is that we should be far more concerned about what we can do to help anyone who has less than they need to live viably in their society or who is powerless to change their circumstances.

Andrew: Mostly, that’s really helpful. I find your definition of poverty as being “unable to live viably within a society” to be extremely useful, at least in the abstract (I’ll ask more about that in a minute). But your final paragraph seems a bit self-contradictory to me: our priority isn’t to know who the poor are, but to serve anyone who can’t live viably in their society, because we already know that “the poor” are “those who can’t live viably in their society”? Haven’t you begged the question here, by assuming that poverty is what you think it is?

I think I agree with you on what it is, by the way, but I disagree on the importance of that question. I think a working definition of what poverty looks like is very important if we’re to obey biblical instructions. To take the extremes: if I think poverty is (a) absolute, like “the inability to afford clothing, shelter and food for oneself and one’s family”, then my giving – as an individual, as a church, and so on – will be channelled very differently from if I understand it to be (b) relative, as in “60% or less of the median income / standard of living,” which is how the word is often used in contemporary British discourse. In the former case, I will give almost entirely to overseas development projects; in the latter, on the basis of proximity, I may give almost entirely to local needs, including to people who have (in your terms) toothpaste, bus fares, welfare, free healthcare, free schooling, free housing, running water, central heating, an iPhone and the Internet. That strikes me as a very significant difference.

So my next question is: how do you understand, in more concrete terms, what “unable to live viably” looks like? And what percentage (roughly) of the population of Eastbourne / Hastings is poor, on that understanding? Rough estimates is fine :)

Natalie: I did say I think it’s important to ask who are the poor — I was just saying I don’t think it should be our primary question on this subject. If we were able to work out a definitive measure of poverty, and if we used that as the sole basis for channeling our resources, wouldn’t we all pour our resources into the one poorest place? It seems to me that rather than that, we’re to respond to need where we see it. A definition is still useful here, otherwise we won’t know it when we see it! But what I mean is, most of us will encounter people who have less than they need to live viably in their society, and the primary question, I think, is: what does God ask of us when we do?

I believe that “unable to live viably” in Hastings or Eastbourne means not being able to afford food, housing, clothing, toiletries, utility bills, etc., without getting into debt and not having any hope of raising yourself out of your situation (an adult who cannot read, for example, may find it much more difficult to even apply for a job, let alone get one and keep it). The new indices of multiple deprivation figures come out this year, but the previous statistics (2010) reveal, for example, that there are 5,800 adults in Hastings & St Leonards with no qualifications (total population including children is 87,000).

Andrew: Well this is why I think it’s important to define what we mean by “poverty”, and why I think it might well be the first question we should ask. We’ve now got five overlapping definitions in the mix, from what you’ve said so far (plus a sixth, which is frequently the one used in the media):

1.        Those who are unable to live viably within their society.
2.        Those who cannot afford food, housing, clothing, toiletries, utility bills, etc, without getting into debt, and without being able to raise themselves out of their situation.
3.        Those who cannot find or hold onto a job.
4.        Those who have no qualifications (just under 10% of the population in Hastings).
5.        Those whose material resources are not sufficient to meet their minimum needs, including social participation (this is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s definition).
6.        Those with 60% or less of the median household income.

It looks to me like #1, #2 and #5 are all saying the same thing. But #3, #4 and especially #6 are very different categories, aren’t they? And this is where I think having an understanding of what poverty is becomes crucial: if I believe our obligation as Christians is to everyone for whom #4 is true, then I may live a very different life, and steward my resources in a very different way, to someone who believes our obligation is to everyone for whom #5 is true.

I’m sure you know where this is heading. This article in The Guardian puts it well: if we use the same word for what happens in Eastbourne and what happens in Eritrea, we risk stripping that word of meaning, and people simply don’t believe us when we talk about poverty in the UK (“yeah, but that’s not real poverty”). Biblically, it seems to me, poverty was about living at or near the point of not having enough material resources to survive, and a good many people today (1.2bn or so) are in that position. Broadening the word to include British citizens who have housing, education, healthcare, safe drinking water, enough to eat, and so on, though obviously motivated by compassion and care for people, both moves it some way from its biblical moorings, and risks diverting material resources away from people who are genuinely struggling to survive on a daily basis. Doesn’t it?

(I should add two caveats. One: I am not for a moment suggesting that if someone isn’t deemed to be “poor”, we shouldn’t give to them, whether in taxation or in charity. Generosity is incumbent on all of us, whether we use the language of “poverty” for the individual or not, and often, financial provision is the most immediate way of loving our neighbours. Two: the question is not whether Christians should be giving (again, via taxes or charitable donations) to people with less than them. The question is which people with less than them should be the primary focus of our giving.)

Natalie: I agree that definitions 1, 2 and 5 are saying the same thing. I also think definition 3 is very likely to lead to 1, 2 and 5 — certainly in societies without a welfare ‘safety net’.

I also agree that we steward our resources differently depending on our definition, but I do take issue with some of the language we use. So, for example, you mention our obligation as Christians. For me, I simply don’t find that word helpful, because I know that in so many areas of Christian life I can (inadvertently or even deliberately sometimes) adopt a ‘doing-as-little-as-I-can-get-away-with’ mentality. For example, I can feel very comfortable tithing exactly 10% and not letting myself be challenged to give more, because I am meeting my ‘Christian obligation’; I can pray for 30 minutes a day and feel like that is good enough to say I’ve done my ‘duty’; and I can withhold practical demonstrations of mercy from those who fall outside definitions 1, 2 and 5 because I can still feel ok about having met my ‘Christian obligation’ by helping those within those definitions.

What I’m trying to say is that I think Jesus calls us to be more radical than that. I think our ‘Christian obligation’ is to show mercy, kindness, generosity and compassion when we come across a need. So though I agree (for the most part) that poverty in Eritrea isn’t the same as poverty in Eastbourne, I would counter with: “But where do you live?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying you shouldn’t give generously to people outside of Eastbourne too! But presumably you believe God has called you to Eastbourne right now, and presumably you accept that there are some people in Eastbourne who are struggling to feed and clothe their families. If both of those assumptions are right, then I think you are called demonstrate the character of God to those around you and particularly to those in need around you.

I think that one of the examples Martin cites in The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is helpful here. He mentions a couple he knows who divide their giving into three categories: their church, various charities, and a ‘poor fund’. Instead of choosing between this group of people or that group of people, they give broadly. Now of course there’s an argument for directing larger sums into one specific pot, but as I said in an earlier response, if we all looked for where the need is greatest and did that, then one group of people would have all their needs eradicated, but every other group would continue to suffer.

As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) At the end of the day, God is lavish, abundant and generous. Wherever we find ourselves, whatever we have and whoever we come into contact with, let’s be like him!

If you have any thoughts on all this, say hello on Twitter, either to @natwillnatter or @AJWTheology, or even both ...

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