Forget Everything You Were Told About Poverty

What if everything we think we know about poverty is wrong? And what if the way we are addressing poverty is only making things worse? These are just but a couple of the many provocative questions raised in the landmark poverty-fighting book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself.”

Now in its second edition and selling nearly half a million copies, “When Helping Hurts” has roots in the Chalmers Center, a self-described “think and do-tank” nestled at the border of Tennessee and Georgia in picturesque Lookout Mountain. The center is challenging how charities, nonprofits and churches measure success in the effort to alleviate poverty.

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Co-authored by Brian Fikkert, an economics professor at nearby Covenant College, “When Helping Hurts” is unapologetically Christian. You don’t get far in the book before encountering scriptural passages and the telling of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth to contextualize poverty in the modern day.

And yet, the book’s popularity suggests that the message is resonating with folks outside the church community. That’s because in a time when poverty fighting is becoming increasingly metrics oriented, Fikkert and Steve Corbett, a community development specialist for the Chalmers Center, are pushing poverty fighters and charities to think about poverty to include much more than a lack of material wealth. For them, poverty is the “result of relationships that do not work, that are not just…. that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

Seen that way, poverty is much more pervasive and requires a more holistic approach in response that goes beyond the immediate needs of shelter, food and money.

The authors contend that “every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy.”

While these terms may seem foreign to the secular reader, they are not incompatible with what scholars outside of the church have been arguing recently to describe a fuller understanding of poverty that goes beyond dollars and cents. One of the best reads on this subject is Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis,” which argues that children living in poverty lack much more than material wealth. In her review of the book, Emily Badger of the Washington Post writes:

They [poor children] have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability.

Poverty is much more pervasive and requires a more holistic approach in response that goes beyond the immediate needs of shelter, food and money

And at a time when the number of people living in poverty continues to rise and big cities are coping with a growing homeless population, there is increased demand to find solutions that work. For Michael Briggs, executive director of the Chalmers Center, this means the center is as busy as it has ever been imparting their wisdom grounded in both a biblical worldview but also empirical research.

That biblical understanding is indispensible and nonnegotiable, Briggs says. Although that may turn some people off, Briggs tells Opportunity Lives that the first step to reducing poverty is repentance and an understanding that we are all spiritually broken. It is also about compelling the church to walk “alongside people who are poor.”

This is critical because otherwise the church runs the risk of actually encouraging even more poverty. Writing in The Heritage Foundation’s “2016 Index of Culture & Opportunity,” Fikkert observes:

“If we listen carefully to the poor, we can hear them longing for more than just greater consumption, for they commonly express feelings of shame, inferiority, social isolation and powerlessness. These problems involve far more than a lack of material things…”

The message is simple and powerful, even if it is grading to the ears conditioned to think that eradicating poverty largely consists of increasing charitable donations and summoning the federal, state and local government to open up the purse springs to spend more on welfare and entitlement programs.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter:@IzzyOrtega.