poverty

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 9 – “And to the Ends of the Earth”

Synopsis

  • This chapter mainly deals with the concept of micro-financing or MF. MF takes business away from loan sharks in the majority world. MFs provide means to credit at a reasonable rate to encourage self-sufficiency through the development of small businesses (usually ten people or less).
  • Large-scale manufacturing has been most economists solution to the poverty of the majority world. However, large-scale manufacturing happens slowly, requires infrastructure, etc. Small businesses can be up and running quickly.
  • Wealth accumulation that provides a cushion for small businesses can be difficult in the majority world, where culture may dictate that when a person has accumulated anything, it should be shared with the community. Therefore, there is a desperate need for savings that are secure and private.
  • One mode of MF is to put borrowers into borrowing groups that require members to guarantee each other’s loans. This leads to a high rate of repayment.
  • Difficulties in MF include problems in providing savings services, failure to reach the extreme poor (who may require loans in the five to twelve-dollar range), failure to reach the rural poor, exclusive focus on businesses, and lack of evangelism and discipleship activities.
  • Any church or ministry that gets involved with MF needs to do their homework and know what they’re getting into.
  • One model is the SCA, or Savings and Credit Association that encourages fellowship and discernment among the community. The provide affordable loans and a means for savings.
  • People may view MF as a cure-all for poverty, but it only addresses part of the need. Never forget that we have poverty of relationship with self, the community, and God. Holistic poverty alleviation must address all areas of poverty.
  • Business as Missions (BAM) is another model. Entrepreneurs start businesses in the majority world, providing jobs, education, and increased productivity through their investment.

My Thoughts

Micro-financing is fascinating. It’s amazing what a few well-placed loans can do to encourage economic development and self-sufficiency in the majority world. What relevance does this have for the poor in the United States?

In my ministry, I mainly deal with men who are released from prison. For the majority of them, they have no job. They have no housing. Many don’t even have a supportive family. When they apply for a job, they will have to share with the prospective employer that they are a felon. It takes a special business owner to extend employment to a felon. So, their job prospects are not good.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these men could start their own businesses? They would get off public assistance, move out of subsidized housing, and become productive members of society that give back for what they’ve taken. Unfortunately, very few of the men that come out of prison have the necessary skills to run a business. So, MF would not be a good solution for most of them, but the few that are willing and able to run a business could make a dramatic change in other returning citizens’ lives by taking them on as employees.

It seems to me that many drug dealers are already entrepreneurs. Why? It’s the avenue of business that’s open to them. The startup costs are minimal. The product is in high demand. The profit margin is tremendous, but the cost to the community is tremendous. Also, there’s a reason the profit margins are so great – the risk of failure means years of incarceration.

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When Helping Hurts, Chapter 8 – “Yes, In Your Backyard”

Synopsis

  • The poor are all around us, even in suburban neighborhoods.
  • “In summary, poor people in North America could benefit from all of the following: (1) the ability to work at jobs with living wages, (2) the capacity to manage their money, (3) the opportunity to accumulate wealth, and (4) a greater supply of quality education, housing, and health care at affordable rates. Moreover, like all of us, poor people need highly relational ministries (delivered through the body of Jesus Christ) that help them to overcome the effects of the fall on their individual hearts, minds, and behaviors.” (Fikkert and Corbett (F&C))
  • Training for the new job opportunities needed as our society changes is a key to getting out of poverty.
  • Training should include soft skills such as living out a biblical work ethic, working on a team, having a good attitude, personal integrity, respect for authority, conflict resolution and and strong communication skills.
  • Training should include hard skills  that may be specific to a particular job, like a mechanic learning how an engine works. Hard skills might also include learning how to manage money so the materially poor can build wealth.
  • Christian businesses must be brought onboard and see their business as a vocation to expand the kingdom of God.

My Thoughts

The American way is one of individualism. We are supposed to, “Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” I’ve never quite understood where that saying came from, but I know what it means. It means that in America, we have the power to fix our own problems and we shouldn’t need anybody else to help us. American individualism is politically best expressed through the Republican Party, which many Bible believing Christians claim as the political party that best represents their beliefs. In many areas, I think that’s true. However, I think we need to shed our identity in a political party and find our identity in Christ alone.

Is it the government’s job to fix poverty? No. I don’t think it is. Where the government has tried, it has failed spectacularly and done so using our money. The government isn’t prepared to fix poverty because it is a spiritual problem that manifests itself physically. Most Bible believing Christians recognize this and thus tend to vote for the party that curbs “social spending.” So, many Christians understand that the government isn’t responsible for the poor, and that’s good. However, where we go off the Biblical rails is when we provide an American answer for an issue that requires a Biblical response.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” is not a Biblical response. The scriptures teaches us that we should work and be responsible for our families. However, it also puts tremendous emphasis upon the church coming alongside the poor.

“During the seventh year, let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” Exodus 23:11

“However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” Deuteronomy 15:4

“If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” Deuteronomy 15:7

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35

Cornelius stared at him in fear. What is it, Lord?’ he asked. The angel answered, Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.'” Acts 10:4

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:17-1

Chapter 8 of “When Helping Hurts” provides American Christians with some concrete, biblical ways that we can not only bring relief to the poor help them pull themselves out of poverty. Training gives the poor skills they can use productively, and Christian business owners can provide a place for them to put their skills to work. At the end of the day, everybody is better off. The poor get jobs that help them be responsible toward their families, they stop relying on government handouts that are funded by the rest of us, Christian business owners get good employees with a biblical view of work that will help their businesses flourish, and all of it comes through obedience to God.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 7 – “Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm”

Synopsis

  • Short-term mission trips are an a growing event in American church life. “There were 120,000 in 1989; 450,000 in 1998; 1,000,000 in 2003; and 2,200,000 in 2006. The numbers reflect a tsunami of epic proportions, a tidal wave of American short-term “missionaries” flooding the world. The cost? Americans spent $1.6 billion on short-term missions (STMs) in 2006 alone. (From Roger Peterson, Short-Term Missions Long-Term Impact? 28 September 2007, Minneapolis. Via Fikkert and Corbett (F&C))
  • Short-term mission trips can cause long term damage while doing short-term good.
  • Problems arise because of different cultural understandings of time and the roles of individuals versus groups.
  • North American short-term missionaries are often very concerned with time and getting the greatest amount of projects completed in the shortest amount of time possible (time is money, this is the monochromatic view of time). Those who are on the receiving end of the assistance are more concerned with how a job is done, the relationships that are involved, and how the group participates than individual effort and when the job gets done. Time is viewed as endless and relationship building is more important than efficiency. This is the polychromatic view of time.
  • “The core problem with STMs to poor communities is that STMs tend to reflect the perspective of “poverty as deficit,” the idea that poverty is due to the poor lacking something. North Americans often view the “something” as material resources, but a lack of knowledge or spirituality is also commonly cited.4 This conception of poverty leads to poverty-alleviation strategies in which the materially non-poor are necessarily in the position of giving the “something” to the materially poor, since the non-poor have the “something” and the poor do not have it.” (F&C)
  • Most targets of short-term missions provide a short term poverty relief, but what they need is long-term development. Short-term relief strangles long-term development.
  • Short-term missions are often focused on the spiritual growth and needs of those providing relief. The trip becomes about us and not about those who are in need.
  • The money spent to take a dozen Christians from the first world to the third world could be better spent by investing in indigenous talent within struggling communities to kickstart development.
  • Short-term trips, if they are taken, should require participants to have a long-term commitment to encouraging development.

My Thoughts

I’ve always been suspicious of short-term mission trips. Sure, they may get a lot done, but isn’t it really a vacation? Isn’t it really getting out of the familiar and experiencing something? Isn’t it really about doing something good and feeling good about doing good even though we don’t have to travel thousands of miles to do good? Aren’t there poor, homeless, hungry people in our own cities that need assistance? Short-term mission (of course I’m generalize, not all of them) tend to be more about the person going than the person being helped. The real, hard work of ministry is the work that is in your neighborhood. The drug addicts, the sex addicts, the mentally ill, in our neighborhood are real people with real long-term needs. But, those long-term needs require long-term commitment, and a short-term mission trip absolves us of the guilt we feel for being so fortunate and not doing much with what we’ve been given.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people who go on short-term mission trips are bad people. I think that they do want to do something worthwhile that honors God, but I also think that most of us want to serve God in the most comfortable way possible. Jesus didn’t call us to comfortably serve him, but to pick up our cross and follow him.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 6 – “McDevelopment: Over 2.5 Billion People NOT Served”

Synopsis

  • In the post-World War II era, the Western world has spent over 2.3 trillion dollars to reduce poverty. Yet, despite the tremendous spending approximately 40% of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day.
  • Despite a vast increase in anti-poverty spending since LBJ, the poverty rate in the US continues to hover at around 12%.
  • In a quest to be as efficient as possible, relief groups have sought to systematize an one-size-fits-all approach to addressing poverty. The problem is, since no two communities are the same or have the same causes of poverty, this approach is destined to fail.
  • Alleviating poverty requires that outsiders not do something to or for poor communities, but look for solutions together with them. When poor individuals and communities have ownership over programs, they bring knowledge, expertise, and a desire to see the work be fruitful. When outsiders impose solutions upon communities, the community has no stake in seeing it succeed because they know it won’t work and if it doesn’t those outsider rich folks will just pour more money into the project.
  • “Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.” Fikkert and Corbett (F&C)

My Thoughts

This chapter presents an intriguing irony. I would state it like this:

1. Rich people are good at making money. They have a particular set of skills, insights, and best practices that help them be successful at taking a little bit of money and making it into much more money.

2. In taking care of material poverty, we desire to take a little bit of money and equip poor communities to make much more money. Rich people should be really good at this! Let’s use their methods!

3. The skills, insights, and best practices that allow businesses to be successful are not the skills, insights, and best practices that make for successful poverty alleviation.

Ouch.

Profit requires streamlined approaches that minimize material waste and maximize profits. Business is all about efficiency. A successful business will always put the best person on the job. Successful franchises use standardization, speed, uniformity, etc. These practices reduce uncertainty (which dampers expansion) and maximize predictability. These practices help rich people get richer because they minimize their risk by helping them to invest in those places where their money is most likely to grow. The best way to build a profitable fast food restaurant is to build them all exactly the same. The best way to build a car is on an assembly line. Standardization and uniformity are the lubrication that keeps our modern capitalist economy humming. Standardization and uniformity mean efficiency, lower costs, higher returns. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur you standardize, then provide a product cheaper and faster than anybody else.

Yet, these practices implemented in poverty alleviation mean certain failure. A poor community in the Appalachians will not climb out of poverty the same way a rural Chinese community will.

The skills, insights, and best practices that allow for robust poverty alleviation are slow and inefficient. They require us to build relationships with the communities. They require us to give over control for projects to people that may not be the best educated or the fastest workers, but who know things that we can’t possibly know – the community.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 5 – “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and Their ASSETS”

Been off on Thanksgiving vacation. Sorry for not posting in a while. Here’s the latest installment!

Synopsis

  • Alleviating poverty doesn’t start by asking the questions, “What’s wrong with you? How can I fix you?” Alleviating poverty starts by asking, “What gifts do you have?”
  • Asking, “What gifts do you have?” is the starting step in ABCD – “asset based community development.” ABCD is the process of reconciling people to God, creation, and others.
  • “Once the assets have been identified, it is appropriate to then ask the poor individual or community the questions: “What needs can you identify that must be addressed? What problems do you see that must be solved? How can you use your assets to address those needs and to solve those problems?” Fikkert and Corbett (F&C)
  • Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) – “…a mind-set and an associated set of tools developed by community development workers in the Majority World…uses a variety of group-based exercises to engage and energize community members in thinking about their community’s history, assets, survival strategies, and goals…designed to affirm the community members’ knowledge and skills in order to empower them to take greater ownership of their futures.” (F&C)
  • Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – focuses on what is right and good in a community’s past as a means of creating a more positive future. Based on a postmodern perspective that says that humans construct their own reality, AI argues that we should facilitate a process in which poor communities narrate what has worked well for them in the past. Once the community has constructed this positive understanding of its history, it can then use this narration to imagine how life can be even better in the future…AI can help shift the focus from all that has gone wrong to all that has gone right” (F&C)

My Thoughts

I was particularly struck by the process of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). History is tremendously important. It’s important, not just so that we understand current events in the proper context, but also so that we can understand ourselves. The LORD’s continual charge to Israel was to remember. Remember that I am the one who created you in my image. Remember that I am the one who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the covenant I made with your father Abraham. Remember the covenant blessings and curses. Jesus continued calling his people to remember. In the Lord’s Supper, we are to, “do this in remembrance of me.” The LORD calls his people to remember who we are, and who we are is defined by our relationship with him.

Storytelling, narrative, is a powerful means of communication. No wonder we celebrate great storytelling! I have yet to discover a list on the Internet of “The Best 100 Essays Ever Written!” but dozens of such lists exist for novels, short stories, comic books, and films. Narrative is so important that no religion is founded or sustained without stories. As Christians, the vast majority of our scriptures are narrative, from the story of creation all the way to the story of the end of time. Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, recognized the tremendous need within the African-American community to tell a new story. He attempted to change the narrative of history for African-Americans by making the black race the creators of a civilization that was millions of years old. According to Elijah Muhammad, a black man named Yacub created the inferior race of white people. Muhammad promised that one day soon the black community would be restored to their rightful place as rulers and gods. As amazing and ridiculous as that story seems, huge numbers of African-Americans believe it because it is a powerful story of their greatness, which contradicts the prevalent narrative as a race of former slaves.

What stories are we telling others? When we interact with the poor, are we telling them that they have the proud heritage of people made in the image of God, or are we telling them that they are children that need to be cared for by those of us who have material blessings?

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 4 – “Not All Poverty is Created Equal”

Synopsis

  • There are three phases of material poverty alleviation. They are relief, rehabilitation, and development.
  • Effective relief is done seldom, is immediate, and temporary. This is dealing with emergency situations like an illness, or the needs of a returning citizen who has no job, clothes, food, etc. Effective relief stops the bleeding.
  • Effective rehabilitation is the second step, immediately following relief. Rehabilitation, “…seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions.” Rehabilitation is the process of working with the material poor in their recovery.
  • Effective development, “…is the process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved -both the “helpers” and the “helped” – closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation…Development is not done to people or for people but with people. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all the people involved-both the “helpers” and the “helped” – become more of what God created them to be…”

My Thoughts

Most pastors will tell you that they get to know the dependent poor pretty quickly. When I say, “dependent poor” I’m talking about people who live off the gifts of others. They have no job, no desire to get a job, no desire for any help that isn’t a handout. In Grand Rapids, we often find the dependent poor on street corners with signs outside the mall and Target shopping center. These are able-bodied men and women who are more comfortable begging for pocket change than working. These people are stuck in the first phase of poverty alleviation -relief.

Can we blame people for getting stuck in relief? If somebody pays your electric bill every time your electricity is cut off, why wouldn’t you go back to them whenever the lights go out? If somebody feeds you whenever your stomach growls, then why look elsewhere for food? It’s a Pavlovian response. People take the path of least resistance to solve their problems. If the church pays the light bill, go beg for money at church. If the church gives out food, go beg for food at the church.

Just to be clear, there are some people who must be dependent upon others. Children, the disabled, the chronically and severely mentally ill, etc., all must rely on others for their needs. These folks cannot work productively. Our families and churches must be the primary place of care for these dependent poor.

However, others can work. Not only that, they need to work. Working gives us dignity as human beings. There is nothing dignified about begging for money or food. There is nothing dignified about having to knock on a pastor’s door and ask for money to pay the lighting bill. Begging puts people on their knees. The gospel is about lifting people up. The only one we should bend a knee to is Christ.

Working is an act of worship. When we work, we are acting in a way that we were created to act. Without work, we atrophy physically, spiritually, and in our relationships with others.

Rehabilitation is the phase least developed by Fikkert and Corbett (C&B), so I don’t have much comment here except to say that I hope there is more on rehabilitation in the coming chapters.

Development is the goal. This is where we want to be with our poverty alleviation strategies. After reading this chapter, I got to thinking about how my prison ministry can be more about development and less about relief. Currently, we give away study Bibles to the men in our congregation. We give away study Bibles, because given the amount of money they earn they would have to sacrifice for months in order to buy one. How the men reclaim their dignity through this process? As things stand now, they become beggars and we become providers. They lose dignity and we get an inflated sense of self as saviors and providers for the poor prisoners.

After brainstorming with a volunteer, we may have a solution. Instead of giving the Bibles away, we sell them at a price prisoners can afford through a third-party vendor. By changing this process, we give the men something to work for, and in that process their dignity is restored. Additionally, we no longer feel as if we are being used by some men just to get a Bible. Instead of being their providers, we become their partners. Everybody wins.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 3 – “Are We There Yet?”

Synopsis

  • “Building on the concept of poverty as being rooted in the brokenness of human beings’ four foundational relationships, this chapter explores what successful poverty alleviation entails and paves the way for the principles, applications, and methods to be discussed in the remainder of this book.”  Fikkert and Corbett (F&C)
  • Repairing relationships (with God, with self, with others, and creation) that were broken in the fall is done through the power of the cross. Jesus died and rose not just to save our souls, but to restore all relationships that were tarnished in the fall. This is the work of reconciliation. Poverty is alleviated through a restoration of these relationships.
  • Those who are seeking to alleviate poverty must never forget that we too suffer from poverty of relationship because of the fall. We are not saviors of the poor. Rather, we too are on the path of reconciliation.
  • People and processes, not projects and products, are the means of alleviating poverty. That is, we cannot throw money at the problem and expect it to be fixed. Doing so presupposes that poverty is just a lack of material stuff. Instead, we are called to much deeper interaction with those in poverty. We need to give our dollars, AND ourselves in relationship with the poor.
  • Non-Christian worldviews see poverty as a result of unjust systems (liberals) or individual sin (conservatives). The Christian view (which also corresponds to reality), is that systems AND individuals are fallen, broken, and in need of restoration. Christians must not make an excuse for individual sin by blaming the system. Likewise, Christians must not let unjust systems that encourage poverty to go unchecked and unchanged by blaming the sins of the poor.

My Thoughts

C&B make a bold claim. “Ultimately, the profound reconciliation of the key relationships that comprise poverty alleviation cannot be done without people accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Wow! That is heretical to modern ears. The idea that we need Jesus for anything flies in the face of the pervasive secularism of our age. C&B rip directly into the idea that any poverty alleviation strategy can be successful without relying directly on our creator and sustainer who is Lord over all things.

Is their statement true? I’ve heard of programs that are not based upon the gospel that have had some measurable success. Many argue that the welfare reforms of the 90’s lifted millions out of poverty. Successful prison recidivism reduction strategies have been implemented in many states that do not explicitly preach Christ crucified. I have no doubt in my mind that some alleviation of poverty can be done by well meaning non-Christians or secular individuals.

However, simply looking at employment statistics, income, and education level does not tell the whole story. Just because people escape material poverty to get a home, a good income, and a Master’s degree does not mean they are out of poverty. How many middle class Americans are addicted to food, drugs, shopping/credit cards, or pornography? How many middle class Americans suffer from depression, loneliness, broken marriages, workaholism, and a lack of meaning in their lives? How many middle class Americans are actually in poverty of relationship? People with money in their pockets, a roof over their heads, and food on their tables haven’t necessarily escaped poverty.

We must always remember that when we are working with the poor. We need them. They need us. I hear that so often in my ministry in the prison. Volunteers look forward to their interaction with the men of our congregation because they relate to Jesus in that individual. God is reconciling us to him by reconciling us to the rest of the body of Christ – which includes prisoners. The men in our congregation are pulled out of a poverty of relationship as well. They know that they are valued, loved, and not forgotten.