By Shawn Duncan
FCS has been working in urban neighborhoods affected by poverty for decades. We've also welcomed service teams and connected with other groups doing similar work all around the country. In that time we have learned a lot about what works…and what doesn’t!
It's exciting to see individuals and organizations dream big about how a community can be revitalized and re-energized to thrive. An important place to start is a holistic understanding of poverty. Along the way, we've observed three common misunderstanding about poverty.
Misunderstanding #1: Defining Poverty as Material Lack
When evaluating a community, how you diagnose an issue will directly impact how to attempt to address it. Do we see "poverty" solely as a lack of stuff? Does limited money, clothes, or food make up our entire definition of poverty?
If we focus on material lack, we will spend our time, resources, and energy sourcing and distributing that stuff. Before we know it, our community development can become a "fill the empty bucket" approach.
Unfortunately, this strategy will never really alleviate poverty. It may make one day easier for someone experiencing poverty, but it will not impact the problem. In some instances, this approach actually digs the poverty hole deeper.
Misunderstanding #2: Envisioning Poverty as an Individual (or Family)
Yes, there are individuals and families experiencing poverty and affected by its presence. However, focusing on such personal realities can miss the bigger picture. We have to expand our understanding of poverty beyond the person or family that approaches us with a need.
FCS defines poverty as a systematic reality. We do our best to take into account issues of place, access, transportation, housing, etc beyond the simple "lack of stuff" paradigm. We have to know the difference between the manifestations of symptoms the original, systematic causes.
Misunderstanding #3: Addressing Poverty from One Angle Only
If the first two misunderstandings go unaddressed, it is extremely likely that the solution will approach only one aspect of the need. For example, a poor family that shares a need for housing will be helped with the provision of a place to live.
While this may occasionally be the "hand up" this family needed to escape poverty, that is not the norm. Typically, challenges with housing are intertwined with additional systematic issues that must be addressed, such as jobs, education, food, etc.
Even if this approach does help one person or family at a time, it is not an approach that can sustain real change in a poor community. For groups who seek to move the poverty needle in a community, a multidimensional strategy is a necessity.
These are 3 common misunderstandings about poverty we have observed over time. At FCS, we aim for neighborhood transformation, using methods that engage a community holistically.