Hearing stories of homeless families will break your heart. At our house, its happened so many times that we get bombarded by letters this time of year. Every charity in the country seems to have our address and is intent on filling up our mailbox. Even though the best research says most charities do not help move people out of poverty. They just make poverty more comfortable.
The problem is how we look at poverty. Emotion and politics have defined poverty in useless ways. Poverty is defined by most people as lack of income. You are above or below the poverty line depending on how much income you have. From this perspective, the goal must be to get more income into the hands of poor people. This has generated a huge federal and state bureaucracy which lobbies to keep their jobs. More income may help in the short term, but supplying people with income does not get at the root causes of poverty.
Maybe some day those who run charities will actually read a little of the research on the causes of poverty. Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for pointing out that personal well being is not determined by income. Lots of sick and unhappy people have plenty of money. Instead Sen proposed that well being is determined by the capabilities a person or family or community has. Instead of defining poverty as the lack of something, Sen says we need to look at the capabilities which enable people to have happy, healthy, productive lives. At best, income is one of many results of having these capabilities.
Sen anticipated more recent resilience work. Many of the qualities of resilient systems are the same as the capabilities of Sen. Resilient systems accumulate reserves and infrastructure. People escaping from poverty accumulate savings and property. Resilient systems maintain themselves. Non-impoverished people maintain their houses and families. Resilient systems are networked but independent. People with rising income have strong networks, but maintain their independence.
Resilient systems are self-organized. People rising from poverty organize themselves for productive activities. They don’t wait for government or charities to intervene. Resilient systems have a capacity for transformation. People with rising incomes adapt to changing conditions and even totally transform their careers when needed.
Resilience research offers much needed insight into poverty. We cannot continue to define poverty by what is not. We must understand the attitudes and personal qualities which help people have healthy, happy lives. All the while realizing that increased income is at best only one result of people having these qualities.
Most of those who run charities are very intent on raising money and giving things to the poor. It makes us feel good because we think we are helping people. Nothing wrong with that.
However, if we can help people to become resilient, they will be less likely to suffer when troubles arise. They’ll be able to adapt and, if necessary, transform their lives. They’ll know how to cope themselves. And the charities won’t be needed any more.
And we’ll have less mail to go through at Christmas time.