When Helping Hurts – Post #3

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.

What do you think of the author’s definition of poverty as being a breakdown in relationships?

Do you agree with the author’s assessment that the materially non-poor often suffer from god-complexes?

What do you think of the author’s formula for causing harm?


Filed under Community Development, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

2 responses to “When Helping Hurts – Post #3

  1. I am continuously aghast at the number of self-help books written by super-conservatives that list material growth as a God-given right. Many of them basically say: God wants you to be rich. They equate spiritual enlightenment with materialism, that one will naturally lead to the other. One recent best-selling author and pastor of a Midwestern megachurch came out with one last year that said just this. His wife also came out with a book that said the same.

    I used to know someone who said that poverty traumatized her so much that poverty in of itself caused her depression and PTSD symptoms. This was when she was too young to work and her parents were severe addicts. Then when she got older, she couldn’t hold down a job on a consistent, long-term basis, and that, combined with her addiction, made her live in poverty again. Plus, she tended to hang around with others who lived in poverty. It’s a vicious cycle. Poverty can certainly cause depression, and then the depression worsens the poverty, which worsens the depression…and also depression, as a child, can lead to poverty as an adult.

    • wmccaig

      Have you read “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide?” I wrote a post on it. Funny but really hits the nail on the head.

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