Systems and Structures that Keep People in Poverty

Why are most of the people in the world trapped in poverty? Is it that they just do not work hard enough? Why are most nations poor? Is it just a matter of corruption?


Complex systems and structures trap people, communities, and nations in poverty. Learn more about this by exploring our downloads, articles and Media.

“Poverty most often has systemic causes, and therefore we do not hold poor people morally responsible for their economic state.” — [United Methodist Social Principles, 163, E]

Poverty can be measured in various ways: income, availability of jobs, access to basic necessities (such as clean water, food, shelter, education, and other opportunities for self-development), death rates from preventable diseases, and lack of health care.

Some 1.37 billion people live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Of course, poverty varies from place to place. Most people in the poorest countries of Africa exist in “absolute poverty,” while around 25 per cent of those in the United States are in “relative poverty.” — [World Bank]

  • People live on less than $1.25 a day? How did this happen?

    Poverty is neither a sign of personal moral failure nor of God’s judgment against a community. In an abundant world of limited resources, God has provided enough for us all to live lives marked by wholeness, integrity, and well-being.

    Unfortunately, systems enable some to take much more than they need at the expense of others, who then cannot have even enough to survive. The disparity is linked to an imbalance of power among people and nations. Power often is influenced by someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, nationality, or other privileged status.

    “We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.” — [UMC Social Principles, 163, intro]

  • So then why are people trapped in poverty?

    Systems and structures are the fabric of our societies, communities, governments, laws, policies and economies—touching nearly every aspect of our lives. Too often they also trap people in poverty.

    Systems and structures build up over long periods of time and tend to favor those in power who create and manage these systems. On the other hand, these same systems frequently serve as a block or impediment to others, leaving them at a disadvantage.

    “In order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world.” [UMC Social Principles, 58]

  • How do we identify and then change those systems and structures that keep people in poverty?

    The analysis of power is the first step in comprehending how systems and structures keep people in poverty. We must know how systems work in order to challenge them. Systems and structures are so complex and integrated with our lives that it can be difficult to see them at work. Can you pick out what systems and structures are at work in the illustrations below?

    Picture this…

    A woman works a workfare minimum-wage job. This job does not provide enough income for her single-income family, which includes three children, to live above the US poverty line. This means that even if she works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, she will not make enough to provide food security, healthcare, and housing.

    She wants to improve the situation of her family and sees education as the path toward that improvement. However, workfare requirements make it impossible for her to study.

    As she looks for other job opportunities that might enable her to get out of the workfare system and support her family while she studies, she finds that the other job opportunities do not pay enough for her to afford childcare for her children.

    • What systems do you see in this example?
    • How do these systems help the family?
    • How is the help limited?
    • How do the systems present barriers to her development and the well-being of her family?

    What about this situation…

    An Indian family’s livelihood is wiped out when flooding ruins the year’s crops. This devastation not only affects the harvest for this year but also next year because the farmer cannot sell the harvest to support the family or to buy supplies for the following year.

    On top of that, since the crops were destroyed, the farmer could not collect or save seeds for replanting next year. This family was not the only family affected. Other states across India have had their farming industry virtually wiped out, and the nation faces a severe food shortage.

    A large, foreign-based agribusiness offers to provide free seeds to all the local farmers as a form of international aid. However, these seeds are patented genetically modified seeds, so to receive the free seeds, the farmers must sign an agreement to not save or replant any of the seeds. This means that every year, the farmer will have to buy new seeds from the agribusiness. Without other options, the small farmer signs the agreement.

    • What systems do you see in this scenario?
    • How do the systems help the local farmer?
    • How is the help limited?
    • Who benefits from the systems and how?

    “As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” — [UMC Social Principles, 163, E]