The Cause of Poverty

A lot of people are trying to figure out the cause of poverty.

My town has a homeless camp right downtown. It is embarrassing to the city and an eyesore to public space. Nearby residents are furiously frustrated at the increase in crime and the people living in the tent-city are making their demands for justice.

Further abroad, poor nations and people are an embarrassment to our desire to see everyone on the planet living healthy, beautiful lives.

It is a mess.

So what is the cause of poverty? Whether it is down the street or around the globe, what makes poverty tick?

The problem is that it is very difficult to pinpoint the single cause of poverty and if you get the diagnosis wrong, it makes it even more difficult to figure out the cure.


What is your guess?

Why is that picture on TV of the kid with flies on his face. What do you think the root causes of his poverty are?

  • Perhaps you think it is mainly a leadership issue: Bad government and systemic corruption
  • Do you see poverty as a geographic issue:  land-locked nations, and limited natural resources
  • Maybe it is an education issue: Terrible schools lead to a lack of knowledge, uneducated masses, and a grinding cycle of poverty
  • Or do you see it as a moral issue: Lying, cheating and stealing to get ahead destroys the rule of law in a nation and ultimately harms everyone

Maybe I am missing one or two more … perhaps you see poverty as the result of Addiction, or Bad parenting, or Laziness, or Entitlement, or the Environment … the list can go on and on.


Wrong Cause and Your Cure Can Kill the Patient

Hundreds of years ago doctors were the experts in health and none of them washed their hands between patients. Lots of people died.

If you miss the cause, you will mess up the cure.

If you get the cure wrong, you might not kill anyone, but you probably won’t make a difference either. Whatever you think is the source of poverty will direct your cure for the problem.

What is your favourite cure?

  • You may see leadership as the problem so you support people who are coaching in leadership development and training.
  • If you think the problem is mainly geographic, you may support a charity that opens up markets. You support the organizations who export and sell local hand-crafted artisan soaps and jewelry for sale at posh boutiques
  • If the issue is education, you fund the building of schools in remote communities, and vocational trade projects on the outskirts of large developing world cities.

There are many projects that support our beliefs in the cause of poverty. Whatever you think is the cause of poverty, I am sure you can find someone who agrees with you and has started a project for you to support


What is the Root Cause of Poverty?

The truth is that the causes of poverty are really complicated, I would be a fool to suggest that there is one single cause for poverty. The causes of poverty are often intertwined and different in every single situation.

But … I do think there is a common thread.

Poverty cannot exist without generosity

Now, before some people think of this as a plea for a socialist utopia where we all share a little more carefully and graciously, I want to say I am not actually talking about anyone giving more to the poor.

What I really mean is perhaps we should give less.

Don’t get me wrong, generosity is important! But un-coordinated and un-informed it does not make a lasting difference.


Opportunity not Charity

When I was in college, I felt poor. I was working a half-time job. Volunteering 20-30 hours a week, and going to school full-time. My days were long and money was tight. So tight that on a couple of occasions I needed to use the food bank. I felt poor because I did not have opportunity to change my circumstances.

I didn’t need better leadership training (solution #1), I didn’t need to move (#2), I was getting an education(#3), and I was part of a morally honest system(#4).

And I certainly did not need someone flying in with free shoes one month, a week of meals next month, or a free seminar on eating healthy when I was living on ichiban and KD.

You know exactly what I needed don’t you?

I needed one thing, and one thing alone, and I was working as hard as I was able to make it happen.

I needed a job. 

I needed what everyone needs.

Maybe you have lived the same story. If not, think about the poor people you know in your family and community. In most cases, what are the majority of them doing?

They are looking for a better job.

Even when we are working internationally, it is important for us to look for the same solutions we might first think of for our friends and family back home. Do they need a better job? it might be the same on the field …


I didn’t need free stuff from a benevolent donor. I needed an opportunity to buy my own stuff. And this is the same for the rest of the world as well.


Want to hear more on the subject? I was recently interviewed for the the Here and There podcast where I shared more of my thoughts on the matter. If you get a chance to listen, I would love to hear your feedback!


Do you think I am right about the root causes of poverty? Where am I missing the point?




March 15, 2018

10 responses on "The Cause of Poverty"

  1. I agree with the statement of maybe we should be giving less. I find that if we keep spoon feeing ‘poor people’ it doesn’t give them the chance to grow, and to be able to make their own business or to be self sustaining. I think in North America we think giving people money and shoes is helping, but I personally see it as a negative thing.

  2. I really liked your article because you showed how complicated the problem of poverty is. Simple answers are always wrong and just giving money really can make matters worse. I heard about a project where they give micro loans to women to start very small businesses. Like you say they just needed an opportunity. They were not afraid to work they just didn’t have any start up money to buy a little start up products. After the Korean war my grandmother had nothing. She sold little buns to people on their way to work. She squatted a piece of land in a field in sold and built a rock wall, then a a room and other rooms until she had a house. The answer to poverty probably does involve making governments do the right thing but maybe providing opportunities and micro loans can help a lot of hard working people who just need a chance to get started.

  3. I like this change in conversation. Poverty can be an incredibly divisive issue among people who are not poor. Because everyone seems to have a different solution toward fixing that problem. I like your idea of focusing more on providing opportunity for people to work instead of getting handouts from the people around them as well as the government. The issue I see is the lack of exactly that though. I have a few friends looking for jobs and they had a hard time finding a job at Walmart or McDonalds. How would you address that tension between wanting to work and not finding a job or not wanting to work and staying on government grants for years on end?

    • ultimately I think we need to realize that poverty is systemic … when a few rich guys give stuff to a few poor guys it doesn’t really help in a meaningful way. But when we change the laws we make a difference

      how do we honour our leaders who realize the value of work ?

  4. I loved this article and it reminded me of my favorite move on poverty, aid and empowerment. It’s called Poverty inc. found on Netflix. My husband also enjoyed it and are revisiting our idea of poverty, wealth and capability support

  5. Mark,
    I read through your thoughts on the “cause of poverty”, and (for me) I see the wrong question being asked.
    What is poverty? What is rich? I’d say a qualified “just about everyone” living in North America is a qualified “rich”.
    The quote… “I didn’t need free stuff from a benevolent donor. I needed an opportunity to buy my own stuff. And this is the same for the rest of the world as well.” If any kindness results in salvation and someone embraces Jesus, then regardless of their ability to acquire “stuff” they are rich.
    Worldly wealth is actually the demise of many spiritually, as N.America clings to wealth and rejects the Lord of all creation.
    The root cause of Spiritual poverty… now that’s a different question, and no matter the “cause” the Gospel is the answer (period). If they have not eyes to see and ears to hear… what have they?
    If we each do what God is calling us to, the earth can and should become a far more eternally wealthier place, yet may not have a penny.
    sincerely & humbly
    for glory of God

    • hey Dave, I have written on the nature of poverty many other times (just do a search for the words “poverty” or “wealth” in the searchbar above if you are interested.)

      And I am certainly not trying to promote property wealth and excess … but sometimes I hear people from north america talk about themselves as poor when what that really means is that they cannot buy what they want when they want.

      I am defining (financial ) poverty a different way. I mean it as the inability of a person to pay for food, housing and other necessities.

      I am saying it shouldn’t be more do-gooderinsm where we deliver handfuls of stuff to people and actually don’t change a thing. I believe that Salvation is a change of systems – even systems we are a part of – so people can have the dignity of work

      I think my argument holds water if that is the context. What do you think should be our corporate response to severe financial poverty?

      Love your thoughts, please bring them on, the conversation matters!

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