What REALLY helps the poor?

Social justice is all the rage in many churches across America. And rightly so. The Bible is pretty clear on the subject. Last fall I read through the Old Testament and I was (again) surprised by the importance that the Bible puts on helping the poor. In fact one of the main reasons that the nation of Israel was sent into exile was because they turned their back on social justice issues including ignoring the poor.

But anyone who has tried to get involved in helping impoverished people and communities knows that it is incredibly difficult. Maybe the greatest challenge is knowing whether what you are doing is actually helping anyone. If someone approaches you on the street and asks for money, should you give them any? If you do, does that gift of money help them? We’ve all asked ourselves those kind of questions.

Now imagine what it is like to be in church leadership where we receive countless calls each week from people seeking financial assistance. We all know that we should help as many as we can but what’s not clear is how to help them. Each year The Crossing gives out more than 100K in financial assistance to the poor in Columbia. Is it helping?

Or take the recent crisis in Haiti. The task there is enormous partly because of the devastation of the recent earthquake but also because of the decades of poverty that preceded the earthquake. How does the United States, the world community, or a faith based charity respond to that situation?

Well, I’ve been reading a book that addresses all these issues. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is well written, practical, provocative, and challenging. Now I warn you that this is another book that I’m writing about before I’ve finished it. But this time I promise that I will return to this topic next Thursday.

The basic premise of the book is that there are a lot of ways to help the poor that end up doing more harm than good. Let’s start with the definition of poverty. If you are like me and most other Americans, you would define poverty along the lines of a person not having the basics of life. We might disagree on what the basics are but we’d probably all agree that poverty is defined by a lack of material resources.

But the problem comes when you ask poor people about their definition of poverty. It turns out that their definition is not concerned primarily with material resources at all. Instead they tend to define it in more psychological and social terms. Listen to poor people and you find that poverty has more to do with shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.

According to the authors, “this mismatch between many outsiders’ perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.” When we think of poverty only (or primarily) in terms of resources, our inclination is to give them only (or primarily) money. But that may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing their shame and humiliation. The principle then is to not do for others what they can do for themselves. This treats people with the dignity and respect that is needed to make long term progress.

The authors argue that giving money can also hurt the giver because it may breed arrogance and a “god-like” attitude in our own hearts. (“I’m so smart and capable that I have plenty of money to give to the uneducated and lazy”). Now at first pass it might seem that this book is promoting stinginess–don’t give money because it doesn’t help anyway. Rest assured that it doesn’t. Instead it argues that we should be giving more but doing it in the right way.

There is so much more to comment on but it will have to wait for another day. Thanks for reading.

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