How should we think about poverty’s causes and effects?
That question has been an important one for us in our ministry here in Mozambique. It led me to do research and interviews resulting in a project that examined the “Giant of Absolute Poverty” among the Makua-Metto. You can read more about that project here.
I’ve been reading through the Edmund Morris’ trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt – it’s terrific! In his second book, Theodore Rex, I stumbled across a quote that succinctly encapsulates a part of the problem of poverty that my article didn’t address, its one I know others have been considering for a while, and I’m becoming convinced that it needs more attention. In a discussion of both rural and urban poverty during Roosevelt’s time, Morris notes,
“A laborer might trade his hoe for a hammer, for a few extra dollars a week, but the increment was meaningless, given urban costs.” (37)
That sad summation – people who flee poverty in rural areas and can find a job in urban ones often find they don’t gain any economic ground because of increased expenses in the city. I’ve seen this dynamic played out over and over here in the Montepuez area. We have a number of friends who have moved from a village setting to leave behind subsistence farming in order to come to a city to make a living. While they may find employment, the increased costs of an urban area make the improvement minimal at best. The hidden expenses of “city life” swallow up the extra money that can be made in a town like Montepuez.
This is a reality that we need to consider carefully – it is an old problem, and one that is certainly not going away. Urbanization affects how we think about poverty and how we should think about ministry. In his book, Understanding Christian Mission, Sunquist notes, “In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas; by 1900 the percentage had grown to 14 percent. Over the next fifty years the number grew to 30 percent, and today it is over 50 percent. Thus, most of the people who are in need of Christian mission and ministry live in urban areas.” (344) Urbanization is not inherently bad, instead it can be empowering when we realize that it “creates traction… God is scooping the masses and placing them carefully together, making it easier for the gospel to get to them.” (McManus, An Unstoppable Force, 47).
Our team’s work has focused mostly on unreached or under-reached villages, but it is important to remember that “earliest Christianity was mostly urban” (Sunquist, 355). The way of Jesus has found a way to thrive in cities since it's beginnings.
The rural/urban difference offers challenges to the way we think about both poverty and ministry. I want to keep chewing on these connections and their significance for our work here…
Grace and Peace,