How to Help the Poor Without Hurting Them… and Ourselves
We’ve all been in this situation: A poorly dressed person approaches our church asking for help with buying groceries. We want to help out, but how? If we give them money, perhaps they will waste it. And if we take the time to go to the grocery store with them, what will prevent them from needing help again in about a week or two? Many of us have a sense that our efforts to help the poor often fail to bring any lasting improvement. But the situation is often worse than we may imagine: Our efforts to help the poor might actually hurt them. Good intentions are not enough.
There is a crucial distinction between “relief” and “development.” Many well-meaning ministries provide “relief” when “development” is the appropriate intervention, a mistake which cripples low-income individuals and undermines the work of development organizations.
Sometimes when I am lecturing at Covenant College and I want the students to wake up, I shout out, “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THIS COURSE—PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR WHOLE LIFE—IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED.” Of course, after I have said this about a dozen times throughout the semester, the effectiveness of this strategy starts to diminish. But this is the first time I have ever said this here, so perhaps it will still work with you!
Here is the most important thing: How we work with the poor reflects our basic understanding of the underlying causes of poverty. A doctor’s diagnosis of the disease determines the remedy that he will apply. If he gets his diagnosis wrong, the patient will not get better and might actually get worse. The same is true with poverty. If we misdiagnose the problem, our approach to working with the poor might actually do more harm than good. We have to get the diagnosis right.
Okay, I need to use this technique one more time, “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THIS COURSE—PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR WHOLE LIFE—IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED.” Here it is: If we misdiagnose the problem of poverty, we will not just hurt the poor. We will hurt ourselves too. Let me explain...
In his book Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Orbis 2000), Bryant Myers, a Christian development practitioner and thinker, presents a diagnosis of poverty that the Chalmers Center has found helpful in its work. While Myers’ framework is certainly open to critique, the Chalmers Center believes it is consistent with biblical revelation and with the experiences and observations of many practitioners and researchers. Myers argues that in order to diagnose the disease of poverty correctly, we must consider the fundamental nature of reality. Myers notes that God—as three in one—is inherently a relational being. Because humans are created in God’s image, we are inherently relational beings as well. Myers explains that before the fall, God established four, foundational relationships for people: a relationship with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation. These relationships are the building blocks for all of life. When they are functioning properly, we experience the fullness of life that God intended. Unfortunately, sin has marred all of these relationships, leading to Myers’ description of the fundamental causes of poverty: "Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings" (p. 86).
This relational framework has profound implications for the design, implementation, and evaluation of poverty alleviation strategies. But before moving on, there is one, major implication that needs to be highlighted at the outset: If poverty is rooted in broken relationships, then we are all poor, just in different ways. For example, a person who is lazy (most low-income people around the world are not lazy) has a broken relationship with creation. Such a person is failing to be a steward over creation in the way that God intends. There is a good chance that this person will end up with an insufficient income. However, workaholics also have a broken relationship with creation. They worship their work and try to find their identity and value in the fruit of their labors. Such people typically have plenty of income, but they suffer from all sorts of problems including anxiety, strained social relationships, and even physical ailments. Both the lazy and the workaholic are suffering from a broken relationship with creation, but this brokenness bubbles up in different ways in each of their lives.
Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. Research from around the world has found that shame is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God and as having inherent value and worth, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others and incapable of improving their situation. On the other hand, those with higher incomes tend to feel a sense of superiority—what Myers calls “god-complexes”—believing that they have achieved their good fortune through their own efforts and abilities and that they have been anointed to save the poor. When the rich fail to embrace their own “poverty,” their engagement with the poor tends to hurt both parties by reinforcing their distorted views of themselves and of one another.
To illustrate with a simple example, if a well-to-do person simply hands-out money to a low-income person, the low-income person may feel even more embarrassed and inferior than ever before and will be less likely to use his abilities to be productive in the future. As a result of this hand-out, the low-income person has become more impoverished both relationally and economically. The well-to-do person is likely to experience two feelings, both of which will exacerbate his god-complex. The initial feeling will typically be a sense of pride that he has saved the low-income person through his acts of kindness. Later, when he observes the low-income person’s continued failure to improve, his feelings of superiority will take a slightly different turn, “Those poor people are good-for-nothings. I helped them, but they squandered it. They don’t deserve my help in the future.” What is often called “donor fatigue” now sets in, the well-to-do person becoming less willing to help the poor and becoming even more smug in his god-complex. Our efforts to help the poor can hurt both them and ourselves.
But there is good news. There is an approach to working with the poor that can and does work. It’s called the gospel of the kingdom of God, a kingdom which brings reconciliation of people to God, to themselves, to others, and to creation. It is the good news of the gospel that empowers us to say to low-income people, “I am not okay. You are not okay. But Jesus is okay. Let’s walk together as Jesus works on both of us.”