Poverty of Character – the Unseen Beggar Within
Feb 18

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the concept of poverty. Poverty can come in many different forms. It doesn’t always have to mean a lack of money, shelter or food. The basic concept of poverty means, “the state of being insufficient in amount.” This opens up a host of correlations. It could be said that a person who lacks understanding has a poverty of understanding. A person who lacks imagination has a poverty of imagination. And a person who feels unloved and unwanted has a poverty of belonging.

It is the desired aim of every humanitarian organization to break cycles of poverty wherever they are identified. In many instances the reality of poverty is infused with an abject lack of basic resources to survive and thrive. As a result there is a concerted effort on the part of many NGO’s to meet these basic needs—and that is commendable and laudable. However we are remiss to think that poverty of finances, shelter and food are the sole catalysts driving the wheel of poverty across the threshold of one generation and into the next generation. In one sense a lack of money, shelter and food are the easily observed realities of what I would call “surface” poverty. But what about “underground” poverty?

As I’ve contemplated, observed and contemplated again the various and diverse issues related to the pervasive ability of 3rd world poverty to recycle the next generation of children through its rotation, I’ve come to see the subtle yet potent influences of underlying, “underground” causes of poverty that in turn act as an impetus— driving surface poverty one more revolution into the next generation.

Causes of poverty can be grouped in four general categories:

1) Calamity

2) Oppression

3) Social Disorder

4) Personal Responsibility

Each general category entails additional underlying causes. Some of them are easy to identify, such as war, famine, geo-politics, prejudice, a lack of education, a lack of healthcare and a general exploitation and manipulation of social order. But those causes largely revolve around the first three categories. What about Personal Responsibility? Concerning this category, I’m of the opinion there are a host of underlying, unseen causes of poverty that unwisely get consigned to the margins—if they are even recognized at all. Poverty is no modern invention. It is as ancient a human plight as mankind itself. Interestingly the Bible speaks of the injustice of poverty almost more than any other issue.

Injunctions and commandments concerning generosity, care of the poor and extending one’s own resources to help lift others out of “surface” poverty permeates the Bible. But it also insightfully identifies some unique causes of poverty that left unaddressed can both create and perpetuate continued impoverishment. They involve poverty of character, integrity and responsibility. For instance: Love of too much sleep, lack of integrity, an un-teachable spirit, inflexibility, resistance to instruction, habitual inactivity, absence of a work ethic, coveting your neighbor’s wealth, drunkenness, gluttony, lack of wisdom and understanding, impatience, stubbornness, dishonesty, failure to abide correction, failure to be diligent, failure to persevere, a lying tongue—all of these are spoken of as being instrumental in cultivating a fertile life for surface poverty to take root.

As the director of one of PCL’s Children’s Homes, I find myself asking how all of this translates into our approach to raise up children who will be agents of change rather than victims of circumstance. We can all appreciate the fact that breaking the proverbial “cycle of poverty” in anyone’s life involves escaping the cycle of its revolution. But how is that best done?

In one sense “breaking the cycle of poverty” as it relates to orphans and abandoned children is best understood as breaking the cycle of dysfunction and lack of education that can easily give rise to poverty and cause them to be carriers of impoverishment to their own future families. As such transplanting them into new cycles is critical.

In a sense all of our kids have all been liberated from a cycle of surface poverty and transplanted into a cycle of love, a cycle of health, a cycle of being valued, a cycle of belonging and a cycle of education— which in turn gives them the indispensable, internal infrastructure to step into opportunity and discover possibilities of growth never before imagined.

But is that enough to truly stop poverty from perpetuating itself through their lives unchecked and unaddressed? I don’t think it is.

Above all I believe it is critical that their internal character grow right along side their bodies and minds. Growing “tall” inside is just as important as outward growth and development. If the opportunities of life outstrip their character, if career options eclipse their work ethic, and if empowerment surpasses personal humility and honesty— they can easily find themselves subject to a life of impoverishment anew. Or perhaps even worse, they could become the new oppressors of a social niche who are empowered and educated to perpetuate poverty by disenfranchising their fellow man! Either way issues of personal responsibility, accountability and moral ethic must be addressed if any lasting poverty relief is truly going to take root long term.

Not all—but a great deal of the social ills I witness in Cambodia, and which numerous NGO’s constantly seek to redress, are a direct result of a societal breakdown in personal responsibility and compromised character.

For example, a father chooses to abandon his first wife and children and selfishly re-start his pursuit of personal satisfaction in the arms of a new, young woman he met “with the boys” in a karaoke club. As a result, the first wife can’t afford to care properly for her children. Depressed and rejected she begins to gamble to pass the time. Soon she becomes addicted to rice wine and emotionally disassociates herself from her children.

At age 14 daughter #1 is soon trafficked by “loving” mom into prostitution and soon acquires multiple, debilitating STD’s. NGO’s “A”, “B” and “C” all seek to address different aspects of her dysfunctional life. At age 4 daughter #2 gets dysentery and dies from easily treatable diarrhea and dehydration—but not before NGO’s “D” and “E” desperately try to save her life. If only mom wasn’t so drunk the day before, she could have sought help earlier. Soon mom demands that son #1 start to carry his own weight. So rather than reach his long-treasured dream to become a veterinarian, son # 1 drops out of school to scavenge for recyclables to help his family.

At the age of 16 he gets mixed up with the wrong crowd—a crowd of youth that mutually console each other with similar stories of absent fathers, negligent mothers and broken dreams. NGO “F” steps in and tries to offer him vocational training but it doesn’t stick. At age 18 he ends up getting a girl pregnant, but has never had parental responsibility modeled for him, and so he abandons both girlfriend and child—just as his father did to him years before. Rejected and shamed by her family she has no other course of action except to abandon her newborn at NGO orphanage “G” and begin a life of self-exploitation in the arms of users and abusers.

On the way to her own poverty of soul and personal destruction, she passes by the shriveled up frame of a young girl breathing her last breadths in a darkened and dank alley—not realizing it is the sister of the boy who is the father of her child she in turn abandoned. And on and on it goes… growing ever more pervasive and widespread in its wretched, societal effects. And all of it—ALL OF IT— is rooted in the self-centered, morally compromised character of a father who chose to jettison personal responsibility for personal pleasure.

Poverty is indeed a multifaceted conundrum to address—but we are remiss in thinking that dollars alone are the answer. Poverty of character, ethic, integrity and responsibility can’t be remedied with donations or contributions. Such impoverishment largely stems from poverty of soul and spirit—but that would lead to an altogether different blog for maybe another day.

-Matt Bohlman

 

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