The Nature of Poverty

Fikrte Abebe - Ecuador

May 8, 2013

I co-wrote this blog with Tsion Horra, a fellow Fellow.

We were recently exposed to the results of a study done by the UN in 1998. The results were published in a book titled “Voices of the Poor.”  Through the reading we believe we have a deeper understanding of poverty. What we have come to realize is that what poor people experience goes beyond materialistic lack and affects them psychologically, and physically.

Before reading “The Voices of the Poor”, for us the image of poverty consisted of emaciated children without clothes and families without food. Having had experiences in three of what are considered developing nations throughout our lifetimes in Ethiopia, Brazil, and now Ecuador, those have always been the images we associated with poverty. Although these images represent important aspects of poverty, they also leave out essential parts that gave us a better understanding of the nature of poverty. What we saw as poverty before the reading was purely physical but what we’ve realized is that poverty is a multifaceted experience…that it’s not only an economic disposition but also a mental one. In poverty, the lack of economic and political powers is obvious as poor people have hardly any voice in policy-making. But what’s more damaging and often inexplicit is the mental powerlessness caused by the lack of control poor people have over their lives. This is the powerlessness that agitates the cycle of poverty that is highly persistent in the poor nations.

When we were in the eleventh grade our English teacher Mrs. Walker introduced us to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The concept indicated that although the human mind considers multiple needs simultaneously, concerns with certain needs dominate our conscious. According to Maslow our needs extend from basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing to more complex concepts such as self-actualization. In the context of the reading, in which many poor people expressed their extreme needs for food and shelter, the concept of self-actualization was out of reach. In fact, one would not give much thought to the distant future (counted in years) when survival in its purest sense is not guaranteed to him or her. Poor people, truly poor people do not know where their next meal is coming from. They do not know where they might be spending the night. They do not know if their shack is finally going to give way while they’re sleeping. They can’t make decisions about the future because nothing is guaranteed today. They do not have meaningful control over their lives and that is what makes them essentially powerless.

This feeling of powerlessness is perpetuated by the mistreatment from entities that could help poor people escape their poverty. In the study, money lenders, land-owners, even government offices are repeatedly shown to be unhelpful, judgmental, and even abusive. Money lenders do not trust poor people even though poor people (especially women)*, because of how little they have, are more likely to know how to allocate their money intelligently. Land-owners abuse those who live on and work their lands because no one seems to hold them accountable to their actions. They give their workers a meager salary or share of the crops, only to take them back through rental fees on the land. Most poor countries have ineffective governments and typically the local government representatives are corrupt and have no interest in developing the community. Thus, individuals and organizations that could and should help poor people escape the life of cyclical poverty don’t.

Another layer of the condition of poverty which we didn’t realize before the reading consists of strained gender relations. Changing gender roles that result in women “bring home the bacon” and men having to be househusbands are causing tension in the home. Many of the poor women lamented how their relationships with their husbands are directly proportional to the amount of money available to the family at any given time. When they have money and are able to feed their family, everyone seems happy and content. There are less occurrences of violence or abuse. However, when the husband cannot provide for his family, he feels emaciated, angry, embarrassed, and turns violent. In instances where the women have to leave the house to provide for the family the society looks down upon the man for not being able to be the sole bread winner of the house. On the other hand, women who work have more financial freedom and more opportunities to make decisions within the household. But, in most cases where women work outside the home, they are still burdened with the household chores. To the man, it doesn’t matter if the woman had to work (mostly in manual labor) all day, if food is not prepared on time or if it doesn’t taste relatively good, it is cause for abuse and violence.

The goal of this huge study was to have a deeper understanding of poverty from those who actually live in it. It was meant provide guidance to the construction of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.  Up until that point those who dictated how and where financial, material, or manual help should be allocated were doctors and economic experts who have never experienced poverty themselves. The participants in the study were asked how they think poverty should be dealt with. Sadly, little head way has been made on the Millennium Development Goals. This could be an indication that more of the world’s population needs to realize and understand the complex nature of poverty. Even though we have a lot to learn, this study has helped us get on the road to understanding how complicated the problem of poverty is. It is often unbearably overwhelming but we believe everyone could be a part of the solution and if we understand poor people we could be more effective in helping them help themselves get out of poverty.


Fikrte Abebe