The Structural Roots of Poverty

Structures are influential beyond measure, organizing and controlling our society and providing stability to human interactions. Most systems are not inherently good or evil, but they do have tremendous power for good and evil. When structures function to advantage the strong rather than empower the vulnerable, they are particularly resistant to change.


Global Poverty and Hunger

A vast web of structures, both at micro and macro levels, interact to keep millions of people poor, hungry, and powerless.

At the local and national levels, weak governance systems may be plagued by problems such as corruption, cronyism, lack of transparency, accountability, bureaucratic capacity, respect for the rule of law, etc. These problems often result in governance systems that do not meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable in society. For example, the state may fail in its responsibility to provide essential public services such as education, health care, and sanitation. It may perpetuate unjust economic policies or land tenure systems that only benefit the wealthy. A weak state may even fail in its primary responsibility to protect the lives of its own civilians from non-state actors, such as rebel groups, and/or state actors, such military and police security forces.

At the international level, global systems of trade, aid, and debt have a tremendous impact on who is wealthy and who lives in poverty; who will be fed and who will go hungry.

Using the example of trade, high-income countries have often failed to recognize how their trade policies create a barrier to local agricultural production and food security in low-income countries. For instance, in order to keep a market for their farm products, Western governments often subsidize grain sales abroad at a loss during periods of surplus production, when world supplies were high and prices low. While the subsidies are important for domestic farmers, this cheap food, in turn, has made it unprofitable for farmers in poor countries to produce food for local consumption, which has forced many people to stop farming food crops altogether. Moreover, Western countries reduce the subsidized sale of food when world supplies are low, compelling these low-income nations who are now dependent on food imports to purchase grain in the world market when prices are the highest.


Domestic Poverty

In our own country, there is also a web of structures that makes it hard to overcome poverty. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, culture/language, legal status (restorative justice, immigration) etc. at many levels still oppresses many in our society. Elderly people in the United States have difficulty paying for medication and hospital visits. Students at inner-city schools have fewer resources and begin life with a disadvantage.

There are also structures, however well-intentioned, that make it hard to become self-sufficient. Low-income housing is built in large complexes, concentrating and magnifying the problems caused by poverty.

Welfare laws are so complex and change so often that just staying in the system is a full-time job. And there is a huge gap of unmet needs when one moves off welfare. For example, if a single mother gets a minimum-wage job (a success), she loses her assistance. Her income is not enough live on, and she is left with no medical insurance and the cost of childcare (From Banner article Tripping Over Lazarus). 


Raise Your Voice

Such systemic injustices are almost always so complex and entrenched that it requires the assistance of government intervention to achieve the necessary reforms. While societal actors have an essential role to play in reforming unjust structures—including by pressing our leaders to take action—the government itself is likely to have the needed ability and capacity to make the economic, social and political decisions necessary to attack the deep structural causes these problems.

As people of faith and conscience, we are called to remind leaders of their responsibilities to their people and offer constructive alternatives.

According to the Contemporary Testimony, we are to obey God in the political sphere by praying for our rulers and working influence our government, so that policymakers may know His will for public life (Art. 52). Thus, "we call on governments to do public justice and to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals, groups, and institutions, so that each may freely do the tasks that God gives" (Art. 53)

We can bring about public policy changes that will significantly improve the lives of millions. Advocacy can have the power to change lives without being difficult or time-consuming. It just takes the will to raise your voice on behalf of the weak, vulnerable, and voiceless.

Visit our Action Center to find out how you can raise your voice to reform the structural causes of poverty and hunger.


An Advocacy Success Story

When Mary Crickmore, a CRC missionary in Mali, learned of plans by a corrupt government office to kick villagers off of the land they had been farming for decades, she was horrified. Not only would her friends lose their livelihoods and homes, but the office that was planning to take their land would be receiving development assistance funds for doing it—money that was supposed to help the very people it would hurt.

However, across the world in Oklahoma, Jim, one of Mary's supporters, learned from her of the corrupt office's plans to take away the land. So he wrote a letter to his senator. His senator listened. And his senator took the issue to Washington, D.C.

This led to officials from the development assistance fund to check out the situation that had been brought to their attention in person. Sure enough, they quickly learned of the office's deceit. The office was promptly removed from the project, corrupt officials were jailed for their misdeeds, and Mary was even invited to help renegotiate the proposal for funding.

Now, the people not only remain on their land, but the development assistance money will bring in irrigation, paved roads to the villages, and other improvements that increase quality of life for the villagers in Mali.