Thursday, October 08, 2009

Five Forms Of Poverty

Recently I’ve been reflecting on five forms of capital - spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual, and financial – and how they might be applied in my life. I wrote about that here, here, and here. Reflecting on mission in AMDs (Areas of Multiple Deprivation), I observe that there are five correlating forms of poverty: spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual, and financial.

This is significant, because the problems facing AMDs are complex, and addressing any of them in isolation is unlikely to have sustainable impact. On the other hand, we who have been invested in by God - who is looking for a return on his investment - need to look to invest all five forms of capital in order to address all five forms of poverty. But different church traditions have tended to place an over-emphasis on particular forms, while undervaluing the importance of others within the gospel.
So here are some initial reflections:

Spiritual poverty:
If we are created to be in relationship with God – drawn into as close relationship as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit enjoy – then spiritual poverty underlies all other forms of poverty, because spiritual capital funds all other forms of capital. That is, all good gifts flow from our heavenly Father. But society has disconnected the gifts from the Giver, as the church has tended to disconnect spiritual capital from the other forms (focusing on spiritual capital, disconnected from the other forms; or on the other forms, disconnected from spiritual capital).

One of the things that I observe, watching culture, is that people have an almost total ignorance of the story of the Bible, but have an astute awareness of preaching. Which makes me wonder what the hell we have been preaching about?

The gospel, for the church, for the wider community, must involve a rediscovery of the stories that reveal to us the spiritual capital we have been given, and how to invest it for spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual, and financial return.

Relational poverty:
Relational poverty is on the increase in every part of our society. Inability or unwillingness to commit to long-term relationships (sexual partners, children, friends, employer/employee, or any other relationship) is evident among those of low and high income – though the things people put ahead of relationships may differ. But those of higher income have greater capacity to attempt to insulate themselves from the effects of relational poverty, for example by the growing dependence on paying strangers to raise our children for us. Trust, in wider society, is at a record low; suspicion of others – fear of youths, fear of paedophiles, fear of people of other ethnicity – at a record high. People in their 40s and 50s remember a childhood (i.e. not that long ago) where doors were left unlocked, and local shops provided not just commodities but social cohesion – or, ‘community glue’ – to neighbourhoods (supermarkets provide commodities, perhaps more efficiently, but cannot provide social cohesion: the catchment is too large and too loosely-tied for retailers to know customers – the same loss of community glue can be observed with larger churches that draw people from a wide area).

In my view, the nuclear family is as dysfunctional as the atomic family. The gospel must include rebuilding the extended family – that is, not only multi-generational but having a wider understanding of family than just our relatives, by blood or marriage, and including an economic dimension. Missional effectiveness must be measured in terms of the church playing a role in rebuilding local community, not in terms of people ‘coming to church.’

Physical poverty:
There tends to be a higher degree of visible addiction in AMDs, though in fact addiction of various forms is an increasing problem across our society, as we attempt to sate certain appetites and suppress others, without recognition of spiritual poverty. There certainly tends to be a higher degree of malnutrition, tied to intellectual poverty in regard to healthy eating, and the preparation of healthy food. Recent studies suggest a link between bottle-fed babies and childhood obesity. And smoking remains most prevalent among the poorest members of our society.

The gospel must include concern for the physical body: both modelling healthy lifestyles (long-term, prevention is better than cure); and caring for those who are reaping the consequences of endemic physical poverty.

Intellectual poverty:
Intellectual poverty has a very obvious impact on both financial and physical poverty. But better education is not, in itself, an adequate answer to poverty, in particular spiritual and relational poverty: if it were, then the middle and upper classes would be less dysfunctional than the working classes, whereas they are just as dysfunctional, but in different ways. Nonetheless, investment in intellectual capital is an essential part of addressing poverty. Within AMDs we need to recognise that the failure of an overly-academic school education to equip people in practical skills (relational, physical), combined with a lack of sustained - sometimes, any - job-creation investment to connect to (financial), has resulted in a deeply-ingrained negative attitude towards learning.

The gospel must include nurturing the mind, and fostering an environment where learning is valued – not idolised, as the middle classes has done, but valued. After all, the call of the gospel is a call to be lifelong learners, or disciples.

Financial poverty:
Clearly, financial poverty is most prevalent among the poor, because though the rich have lived increasingly beyond their means they also enjoy the power to offload their debts on others. While recession hurts everyone, it will hurt those most responsible for recession the least.

Addressing financial poverty is part of the gospel, and it must include partnership and redistribution of resources. However, this must not be done in such a way that creates dependency, and the resentment that follows dependency, by failing to involve ownership.

I am blessed to belong to a local church that takes addressing financial and physical poverty, in particular, very seriously (through debt advice/management; a credit union; support in developing various basic life skills; support for those wrestling with addictive issues; mental and physical health support). I wonder to what extent the five forms of capital/poverty are connected to each other in our missional engagement with the community, and how we might create more connections...


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