Poverty Is Often Missing A Face


A Distorted Sense Of Poverty Blinds Us From Our Abundance

by Eric Elkin

The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
— 1 Kings 17:16

Eleanor Roosevelt knew legislatures in Washington had no functioning grasp the depth of problems created by the Great Depression in rural communities. Nor did they really understand the scope of poverty in the United States.  Even before the 1929 Wall Street Crash, 60% of the rural population lived well below the poverty level. Mrs. Roosevelt knew people needed to see the problem to comprehend it.

Dorothea Lange captured the pictures Mrs. Roosevelt desired people to see. In 1935, Lange left her studio job creating portraits for the San Francisco elite to capture images of rural poverty for the Farm Security Administration. While on this assignment she found the face that would define her career and the Great Depression. 

One day while visiting an encampment of struggling crop pickers, Dorothea came across a mother sitting with her children underneath a makeshift lean-to. She took five photographs, all from the same angle moving closer with each shot. Unlike other subjects of her other photos, Lange spoke very little to the mother. Only asking her age and promising her not to sell the picture for profit.

The photo was sent to an editor of a San Francisco newspaper along with a description of conditions in the camp. Lange told him  the woman in the picture was “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” The editor contacted federal authorities who rushed to the camp to deliver food.


When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Pictures speak a thousand words, but sometimes, the words attached to them are not as accurate as the reality they are meant to convey. The woman in the photo was Florence Owens Thompson. It took forty years before anyone discovered her identity. Once they did, she provided the details of the picture.

They were waiting under the lean-to while her husband and her son went into town to find a part for their broken down car. Her family was very poor but had steady work. The picture was something that had haunted her and her family their entire life. It was embarrassing to be the image of poverty.

The story Lange attached to the photo was not Thompson’s. The place where the Owens family car broke down was a field where people had come to find a job picking crops. However, a freezing rain destroyed the harvest leaving almost 3,500 people without work, pay, or food. They were starving. Florence’s face led to the relief of these impoverished people.

In today’s reading, Elijah asks a widow to give him the only food she has for her and her starving child. The food is the only thing standing between them and death. Elijah’s request comes with a promise, the meal will not end, and the oil will not run out. The event is the first of two miracles which will bring life to the widow’s house.

The story is missing a face. We cannot see the poverty and hunger of Elijah, the widow or her son. The absence of an image, unfortunately, allows us to take liberties with their misery. We can pretend a minor setback in our life is just like the widow’s plight in the story. All three people in the story are starving and desperate.

Sometimes our distorted sense of poverty blinds us from seeing our abundance. The face of one in desperate condition does more than shine a light on our wealth, it opens our eyes to compassion. Compassion is the way God feeds those who hunger. 

Click to read 1 Kings 17: 8-16

Reflection Questions:

  • When was a time you saw the face of someone in living in poverty?

  • How did it effect your sight?

  • Has God ever worked to help someone through your sense of compassion?

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