I decided to read When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, because it had been recommended by several evangelical sources. The praise for the book has been lavish… but then again, it was for Walking with the Poor by Bryant Meyers as well, and as my previous reviews indicate, I was pretty thoroughly displeased with it. I approached When Helping Hurts, then, with both hopes and fears. I am pleased, though, to be able to write a positive review of it.

Since I’ve drawn a comparison between When Helping Hurts and Walking with the Poor already, it’s necessary to point out that these are very different books. When Helping Hurts is written for laypeople and churches. The assumption is that the audience will want to do something about poverty, and in fact that they are trying to do something about poverty already; the focus of the book is to tell them how to engage productively. Walking with the Poor, on the other hand, is oriented rather to the development professional (or the serious layperson), who is perhaps looking for a spiritual grounding for her professional work, or perhaps a way to integrate her religious beliefs into her project activities. Walking with the Poor presupposes development as an activity, and indeed the existence of the entire development industry (semi-pejorative use of “industry” there, on my part). When Helping Hurts presupposes the local church. I suspect that that difference in sequence goes a long way to explaining why I found When Helping Hurts so much more valuable.

Corbett & Fikkert actually adopt Myers’s definition of poverty, which is that poverty is a condition caused by a breakdown of relationships: between God and the individual, between the individual and self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and creation. (This goes a bit further back than Myers of course, but they credit him.) So basically, poverty is the result of the Fall. We’re on solid Christian ground here.

The books diverge, however, in their definitions of poverty alleviation—in fact, the two definitions, because the authors quite rightly distinguish between poverty alleviation in general and material poverty alleviation. This is an excellent start, since as I noted in my first review of Walking with the Poor, assuming the idea of “poverty” and then trying to shoehorn “spiritual poverty” into the definition is a sloppy and offensive way to talk about people who have less money than we do. Here is how Corbett & Fikkert define poverty alleviation:

POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

Reconciliation of relationships is the guiding compass for our poverty-alleviation efforts, profoundly shaping both the goals that we pursue and the methods we use. The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness. Nor is the goal to make sure that the materially poor have enough money. …. Rather, the goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. One of the many manifestations of these relationships being reconciled is material poverty alleviation[.]

So then, basically the whole Christian enterprise is oriented toward poverty alleviation. We have all manner of fractured relationships as a result of the Fall, and the whole ministry of reconciliation is oriented at restoring those. That is a very broad definition, of course, and this is a book about the poor, so of course the authors are going to get more specific.

MATERIAL POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.

So, we get the contrast between the general spiritual poverty that affects all of us, and the specific circumstances that prevent people for providing for themselves and their families. The authors unpack this a little:

There are two key things to note in this definition. First, material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be. (Of course, we recognize that this is impossible for some people because of disability or other factors.) Second, work is an act of worship. When people seek to fulfill their callings by glorifying God in their work, praising Him for their gifts and abilities, and seeing both their efforts and its products as an offering to Him, then work is an act of worship to God. On the other hand, when work is done to glorify oneself or merely to achieve more wealth, it becomes worship of false gods. How we work and for whom we work really matters.

(I’m reading from a Kindle, but the Kindle tells me that all of these quotations are from page 74.)

I am so pleased with these definitions, which (to my thinking) correct so much of the wrong-headedness of Walking with the Poor, that I could really almost stop there. A few other comments, however.

I appreciate that Corbett & Fikkert devote equal space to overseas poverty and poverty in North America. These seem like guys who are genuinely engaged where they are. There is also a certain arrogance in development work, in which it is sort of implied that Westerners (or people funded by them) know how to fix poverty. Keeping one eye firmly on the poverty in our own cities, and now in our suburbs, provides a measure of humility. (A friend told me about an American NGO that was working for prison reform in this country. “Wow, that’s bold,” I said. American prisons are notoriously bad.)

Along those same lines, I think the authors graciously address the relationship between poverty and racism in the United States, which is an unentangleable mess of structural inequality, unfortunate personal decisions, happenstance, and history.

Evangelicals are certainly correct that the Bible never allows one’s circumstances to be an excuse for one’s sin. Yes Alisa [previously introduced as a prototypical inner city poor woman] sinned by having extramarital sex, and this was a major contributor to her poverty. But many people commit the same sin without plunging into decades of poverty. Why? Part of the answer is that for a variety of historic and contemporary reasons, ghetto residents are embedded in systems that are distinctly different from that of mainstream society. Some of these systems are of their own making, but many of them are not.

That is a pretty good paragraph. I can’t think of a lot of people who avoid of Scylla of equating wealth with virtue and poverty with vice, and the Charybdis of attributing everything to society, effectively denying the moral agency of people at lower socioeconomic levels.

The authors have some concrete suggestions, none of which is revolutionary, but which consistently reflect a concern to respect people’s dignity, and to deal sensitively with power disparities. For overseas work, the recommendation is basically to partner with agencies with a proven track record of helping, and to be very cautious about short-term trips. For local work, the recommendation is for more personally costly involvement with poor people who come for help. These are tall orders for the evangelical church, as I perceive it today, but I hope that the book will have its intended effect on its readers.