One of the basic premises of the book “When Helping Hurts”, which I have been blogging through this past month, is that poverty is really a breakdown in relationships; relationships with self, others, God and creation. The authors state, “While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms…poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, hopelessness, depression, fear, social isolation and voicelessness.”
Outsiders tend to emphasis a lack of material items such as food, clothing, shelter and employment. The author’s emphasis that “this mismatch between the outsiders perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences on poverty alleviation efforts.
The authors give the example of someone who goes from church to church asking for money to pay their bills and ask “What if this person’s fundamental problem is not having the self-discipline to keep a stable job? Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-disciple…A proper diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping people without hurting them.”
“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.”
This much broader definition of poverty can help us all to see our own poverty, which is absolutely necessary if we hope to build authentic relationships with those we serve. According to the authors, “Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low income people is likely to do more harm than good.”
The authors believe, “Low income people often feel inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty. The economically rich often have “god-complexes, “ a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. One of the biggest problems with many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being for the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.”
To summarize the author gives this formula:
A material definition of poverty
Plus: The god-complexes of the materially non-poor
Plus: The feelings of inferiority of the materially poor
Equals: Harm to both the materially poor and non-poor
The authors suggests, “For many of us North Americans the first step in overcoming our god-complexes is to repent of the health and wealth gospel. At its core, the health and wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.” This kind of theology can lead people to argue that the poor are poor because they are less spiritual than the rest of us which is simply not true.
In my next and final post related to this book, we will look at how the authors of “When Helping Hurts” suggest we can help alleviate poverty without doing harm to ourselves or others.