When Helping Hurts
How to move past poverty's symptoms to its deeper causes
by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert with Katie Casselberry
Hope Community Church, a predominantly middle-class congregation, is centrally located in the downtown area of a U.S. city. Being in the Christmas spirit, Hope decided to reach out to the residents of a nearby housing project that was characterized by extensive poverty.
Church members bought Christmas presents for the children and went door-to-door singing Christmas carols and delivering wrapped toys to the boys and girls in each apartment. Although it was awkward at first, the big smiles on the children’s faces and the warm reception of the mothers moved and encouraged the church volunteers. In fact, the congregation felt so good about the joy they had brought that they decided to expand their ministry, delivering baskets of candy at Easter and turkeys at Thanksgiving.
After several years, Hope’s pastor noticed that he was struggling to find volunteers to deliver the gifts to the housing project. At a congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning.
One member spoke up: “Pastor, we are tired of this ministry. We have been bringing them things for several years, but their situation never improves. They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out. Have you ever noticed that there are few men in the apartments when we deliver the toys? Many residents are unwed mothers who just keep having babies out of wedlock.”
Churches all across the U.S. share elements of Hope’s story. They want to help people who are poor, but they are not sure that their efforts are making a difference. And sometimes frustration sets in, as it did with Hope Community Church.
Churches want to know: What lasting impact is our church having in our community? How can we be good stewards of our resources and foster lasting transformation in our communities?
Unfortunately, good intentions aren’t enough. As we will see, it is actually possible to harm the poor in our attempts to help them. The first step in moving forward is recognizing that poverty — and thus poverty alleviation — is more complicated than we might think.
What Is Poverty?
Imagine that you went to the doctor with chronic headaches, and the doctor simply gave you medicine to stop the pain. If you had a brain tumor, this approach would do serious harm to you, for it would deaden your pain while your tumor grew bigger and bigger. The same is true when we work with people who are poor. If we treat only symptoms, we can actually mask the underlying problems, thereby hurting poor people in the very process of trying to help them. Good intentions are not enough.
And therein lies the problem in many of our attempts to help poor people. Most of us define poverty as a lack of material things such as money, food, and shelter. As a result, we try to solve the problem by giving things to the poor, whether in the form of backpacks full of school supplies, turkeys and toys at Christmas, or repainted houses every summer. Although these programs may reduce the pain temporarily, such handouts treat the symptoms of poverty rather than its underlying causes.
Low-income people describe their poverty in far more psychological and social terms than we do, often describing it as a profound sense of shame, inferiority, helplessness, vulnerability, and social isolation. Handouts of material resources will not solve these problems. To be truly effective, we need to move past treating the symptoms of poverty — a lack of material things — and correctly diagnose its deeper causes.
From a biblical perspective, poverty is rooted in broken relationships. The Bible teaches that in creation God established four foundational relationships that shape each person: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended. Families are nurturing, work is fulfilling and productive, and people glorify God in all that they do.
However, the Fall damaged all four of these relationships for all of us. Hence, we are all “poor” in the sense that none of us are experiencing these relationships as God intended. Those of us who are not materially poor often experience this brokenness in the form of pride, self-centeredness, workaholic tendencies, and a desire to “play god” in everyday life. In contrast, those who are materially poor often experience this brokenness in the form of a paralyzing sense of inferiority, violent conflict and exploitation, a failure to steward resources, or a sense of spiritual fear or isolation. Thus, all of us, regardless of income level, desperately need the restorative work of Christ in our lives.
Helping or Hurting?
Here is the clincher: The way the materially non-poor are broken tends to exacerbate the brokenness of the materially poor, and vice versa. The ways that we speak and act toward the materially poor often confirm what they are already feeling:I am inferior; I can’t do it; I need somebody to save me.
This attitude makes them more passive, and, as this happens, we get more arrogant: I knew they didn’t have my work ethic and initiative. Why don’t they do something to improve their lives?
Their shame deepens, and our pride grows.
Let’s go back to Hope’s story. There was a reason few men were in the apartments when the church members delivered the toys. Often, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments. For a host of reasons, low-income males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs. This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs. The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-class people providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy. In trying to alleviate material poverty, Hope increased these fathers’ sense of inferiority and shame.
In addition, the members of Hope Community Church hurt themselves. At first, the members developed a subtle sense of pride, thinking their acts of kindness were helping the project residents. When they then observed the residents’ failure to improve their own situations, the members’ sense of superiority was further increased.
This story illustrates the basic formula for causing unintended harm in our efforts to help the materially poor:
Breaking out of this equation requires us to change the first two variables: the way we define poverty and our sense of pride and superiority. The repentance starts with us.
As we move from a material to a relational definition of poverty, we begin to see that poverty alleviation is ultimately about reconciling relationships — in both our lives and the lives of the materially poor. As a result, effective poverty alleviation happens by forming long-term relationships with the materially poor, walking alongside them over time as Christ restores both of us.
Not All Poverty Is Created Equal
Appropriately helping low-income people also requires discerning whether the situation calls for relief (short-term handouts to people in an emergency or crisis situation) or development (walking with people over time in a way that reconciles their — and our — relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation).
Relief is the appropriate response when people are incapable of helping themselves, such as after an earthquake, famine, or war. But the vast majority of materially poor people around the world are not coming out of a crisis. They can contribute to improving their circumstances, making walking alongside them developmentally the proper approach.
Because of our tendency to define poverty as a material condition, we often apply relief in contexts that call for development. This is one of the most common and detrimental mistakes churches make in attempting to alleviate poverty, whether in their own communities or around the globe on a short-term missions trip. Handing out shoes and clothing to people who are not helpless can deepen the very feelings of shame that are among the root causes of material poverty. Doing so undermines their capacity and drive to support themselves and their families through work, fostering a mindset of dependency.
Assets or Needs?
Churches also need to move toward “asset-based” approaches to poverty alleviation, rather than “needs-based” approaches. An asset-based approach focuses on the God-given gifts, resources, and abilities that He has placed in a community. It seeks to identify, celebrate, and mobilize those gifts. A needs-based approach focuses on the needs and deficits in a community, seeking to bring outside resources, leadership, and solutions to “fix” the problems. It assumes, “We must build houses and run Vacation Bible Schools in your community because we know more than you do. We must bring you agricultural equipment so you can farm more efficiently.”
Such an approach often reflects and feeds sinful pride in our own hearts and intensifies the feelings of inferiority that commonly plague low-income people. In short, it again deepens the poverty we are each experiencing.
Focusing on the assets God has put in a community frames our interactions with the materially poor in light of their God-given dignity. It affirms that they can steward their resources to God’s glory and support themselves, combating their feelings of inferiority. In the process, an asset-based approach fosters an attitude of respect in our hearts for the materially poor, countering our sense of superiority. This does not mean we will never bring in outside resources, but we will only do so in a way that complements, rather than undermines, local assets.
Further, healthy poverty alleviation efforts are participatory, asking low-income individuals and communities to define their needs and propose solutions. And by asking them to initiate and contribute to their own improvement, participatory approaches give low-income people ownership of their own change and empowers them to sustain that change in the future. In contrast, “blueprint” approaches tell the materially poor what to do and how to do it. Such programs treat the materially poor as objects, undermining their God-given dignity as image-bearers entrusted with managing their own gifts and resources.
So what does it look like when a church’s ministry initiatives embody these principles?
Let’s go back to Hope. Realizing its approach was neither effective nor sustainable, the church retooled its efforts. Instead of giving handouts each holiday, Hope opened a thrift store where the parents from the housing project could buy donated toys at a low cost. The parents were then able to purchase toys for their children, building dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of their children.
Over time, Hope’s members built relationships with the parents and began to address their deeper issues by offering job preparedness and financial education classes. Participants in these classes studied the Scriptures together, enjoyed fellowship with church members as equals, and learned how better to support themselves and their families.1
As Hope saw the benefits of walking with these parents over time, the church leaders began to reevaluate Hope’s international work as well. They realized their short-term missions trips were providing relief-type handouts to people who were not helpless. Hence, Hope changed their trips, focusing on supporting and encouraging partners who could actually engage in the long-term process of asset-based, participatory development.
In light of these principles, here are a few closing thoughts about how to serve the materially poor.
• Remember that the materially poor are made in the image of God with inherent dignity, and that we all need the reconciling work of Christ in our lives.
• Look for opportunities to form relationships with low-income people over time, rather than looking for one-time interactions.
• Recognize, celebrate, and mobilize the gifts God has already placed in communities and individuals, empowering the materially poor to improve their own circumstances. This includes supporting ministries and churches that are in those communities and working effectively.
• Don’t give low-income people handouts of material things unless they just experienced an emergency situation or crisis.
• Don’t do things for the materially poor that they can do for themselves. Instead, walk with them.
• Don’t assume that your way of doing things is best, imposing a blueprint approach to poverty alleviation. The materially poor know things about their circumstances that you do not. Listen to them.
A growing number of churches like Hope are moving away from crippling handouts and toward truly restorative approaches. Since the Church is the embodiment of Jesus Christ — who is restoring all things — we need such a shift to be faithful stewards of the resources God has entrusted to our care.
This article is adapted from the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.2
1. Resources and training in these ministries are available at the Chalmers Center, http://www.chalmers.org.
SIDEBAR: Development, AG, and West Africa
The foundational principles of poverty alleviation described in the accompanying article apply internationally as well. Indeed, it is possible to use asset-based, participatory development even in settings that are very poor materially.
The Chalmers Center is working with Assemblies of God church leaders in Togo, West Africa, to form savings and credit associations as a development ministry of local churches. Participants in these groups study Scripture, pray together, learn money management principles, and save and lend their own resources to one another. These groups arise from local churches and require no outside money. As a result, they are asset-based, participatory, and sustainable, providing an incredible opportunity for local churches to share the gospel with low-income people and address their physical needs.
When members describe the impact of these groups, their responses reflect the multifaceted restoration central to development. Dimbiani, a mother of three, is now financially stable.
“Before I joined the savings group at our church, I could not even afford to buy salt for my soup,” she says. “But after receiving my savings from our group, I bought a goat that gave birth to two others.”
Yentougli, an AG deacon, says: “The training helped me a lot in my own life to better understand my relationship with God and how to relate to other people.”
Samuel, an AG pastor, says these groups foster spiritual, economic, and social transformation.
“Members who were not happy to come to church in the past because they did not have money for the offering now come,” he says. “They pay their tithe freely, and their relationships with each other have improved.”
When we view poverty as a material condition, savings and credit associations seem like a strange approach to alleviating poverty. After all, Dimbiani, Yentougli, and Samuel never received handouts of food, clothing, or money. But when we approach poverty as a situation rooted in broken relationships, development approaches like church-centered, gospel-driven savings and credit associations make all the sense in the world.
— Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia