Why Do Some People Live in Poverty?

There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ ”

- Deuteronomy 15:11

Economic discussions must deal with the subjects of wealth and poverty, so it is no surprise that the biblical teaching on economics has much to say on both of these issues. What might catch some people off guard is the fact that Scripture never says that being wealthy is a sin in itself, and it never says that poverty is an inherently righteous condition. The love of money is the root of all evil, not money per se (1 Tim. 6:10). Rich and poor alike can love money, but they can also be driven by something other than a love of money. Wealthy people can be out for only themselves and to amass as much as they can because they have made wealth their god, but poor people may also love money as their god and be motivated to sacrifice their integrity for the sake of escaping their condition. Similarly, people may love God above all else even though they are rich, just as people may love God above all else even though they are poor. Abraham, one of the wealthiest men of his era (Gen. 13:2), and Jesus, who had nowhere to lay His head (Luke 9:58), exemplify this attitude.

The Lord does not choose people for salvation based on their net worth, but Scripture nevertheless depicts Him as having a special concern for the plight of the poor. Today’s passage, for example, tells us that God expects His people to be generous and help those who are in need of the basic necessities of life (Deut. 15:11). But as the Bible also calls us to walk wisely, we must also know that truly helping the poor requires an understanding of why people live in poverty. If we do not take this into account, our helping may actually hurt them.

God describes four categories of poor people in His Word. First, some individuals live in poverty because of some calamity or disaster. Orphans and widows who live in poverty do so because a tragedy has left them without a breadwinner (James 1:27). Others live in poverty on account of being exploited by criminals (Lev. 19:15). The third category of impoverished people is made up of those who refuse to work (2 Thess. 3:10). Finally, some people are poor because they have given up a secular career to go into full-time ministry. Consider, for example, the medical missionary who left a lucrative practice to serve overseas. Each group needs a different type of assistance. Orphans and widows may need permanent financial assistance. The exploited need help navigating the justice system. Those who refuse to work require church discipline and encouragement to find a job, and those who go into full-time ministry deserve our prayers and financial support.

Coram Deo

To be wise stewards of God’s resources, we must provide real help to people who are truly in need. Many well-intentioned people support programs that do not provide truly helpful assistance to the poor, and others refuse to help the poor because they think that everyone who suffers in poverty has brought it on through laziness. Let us seek to be wise in how we provide for those in need, and may we never turn away someone who truly needs our help.

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 18:9
Ezekiel 18:10–13
Romans 15:22–29
1 Timothy 5:3–16

For permissions, please see our Copyright Policy.