Poverty-alleviation and truly serving the poor is a lot more involved than I once thought. When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, brings together the necessary pieces of the puzzle to get a comprehensive perspective on the topic. Last week, I introduced the book. This week, I want to comment on the first section, Foundational Concepts for Helping the Poor.
Chapter 2, What’s the Problem? makes a distinction between four types of poverty which are all the result of broken relationships.
- Poverty of being is the result of a messed up self perspective which can result in a God complex or low self-esteem.
- Poverty of community, caused by our relationships with others being messed up, results in self-centeredness or exploitation and abuse.
- Poverty of stewardship is the result of a broken relationship with the rest of creation and results in loss of a sense of purpose, laziness, or workaholism, and materialism.
- Poverty of the spirit from a broken relationship with God results in denying God’s authority.
The authors cite several quotations from those who live in poverty and, interestingly, they describe their poverty in psychological and social terms rather than just talking about their material needs. Hence, they address the different types of poverty stressing the importance of a correct diagnosis and emphasizing how the wrong treatment could make the problem worse. Here is a grid of causes and responses:
- Lack of knowledge… Educate the poor
- Oppression by powerful people… Work for social justice.
- Personal sins of the poor… Reveal the person of Jesus
- Lack of material resources… Get resources to the poor
I love that the authors stress the need to develop relationships with people to understand the true nature of their poverty. That is the missing element in most social service settings, because it is messy and time-consuming, but unfortunately such a system further contributes to demoralization of the clients. Likewise, they write of understanding a poverty-stricken community and discovering what God is already doing there.
One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that the design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their God complexes and the poverty of being of the economically poor-their feelings of inferiority and shame. – p.65
Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. – p.64
Chapter 3, Are We There Yet? deals with the dual causes of poverty: broken people and a broken system. Here is a brief summary of the description of our broken system.
Over the last half century, various federal urban programs have resulted in African-American families losing their role models, working families, and economic base. For decades, we had a welfare system that penalized people for working. Caucasian Evangelicals, for whom the system has worked well, are particularly blind to the systematic causes of poverty and are quick to blame the poor.
This post was originally published February 9, 2010