The First Step in Poverty Alleviation

When we see material poverty in the world around us, our first instinct is to do something about it. Where should we start? What’s the first step in poverty alleviation?

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that material poverty isn’t just a lack of money or stuff. It’s typically a symptom of something much deeper. If we want to truly help people who are poor, we need to address the root causes of poverty.

So what’s the first step in poverty alleviation? I would submit to you that the first step is repentance.

Recognizing Our Own Brokenness

“Hold on,” you might be saying. “Why do I need to repent? I’m trying to help people!”

Well, the same brokenness that affects materially poor people also affects you and me. While the Bible calls us to be particularly concerned for the materially poor, there is a sense in which all of us are poor, because none of us are experiencing our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation in the way that God designed them.

Many people who are materially poor have a broken relationship with self, and so they suffer from a marred identity—a sense of inferiority and incapacity. They often feel that they are powerless to change their circumstances.

Those of us who are materially well-off also have a broken relationship with self, but it looks different. We often suffer from pride and what some people call a “god-complex.” We believe that we can use our wisdom, knowledge, and wealth to save the world.

The way that we’re broken and the way that the materially poor are broken is a bad mix! Our words and actions often communicate to the materially poor what they’re already feeling: that they’re less than human, that they are incapacitated and inferior. We actually hurt the poor and the very process of trying to help them!

We need to adopt a more humble posture, a posture that says, “I am broken, and the materially poor are broken.” Thankfully, Jesus Christ is showing up and bringing healing to both parties!

Cultivating A Humble Posture

It’s can be really difficult to cultivate a posture of humility in a wealthy country like the United States. We have tremendous compassion for poor people in places in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, but at home, our attitude towards the materially poor is often one of disgust or disdain.

It’s hard for us to understand how people here could be materially poor. After all, there are so many opportunities for progress here, aren’t there? America is the land of opportunity! The system has worked for you and for me. Why can’t the materially poor make it work for themselves?

We have to repent of that attitude. For some people the systems don’t work or are even oppressive. And when personal sin is the primary culprit, we must remember that we are all sinners, just in different ways.

In addition, we need to repent of the belief that we have all the knowledge, expertise, and resources to solve the problem of poverty. Because poverty is rooted in broken relationships, it is only Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all things, who can ultimately solve poverty.

Yes, Jesus uses us as part of His reconciling work, but ultimately He is the only one who can address the fundamental issues underlying material poverty. We need to root all our ministry in the story he is telling about Himself and about us.


As you think about how to help people who are materially poor in your community, here are two questions to consider:

  • In what ways do you recognize your own poverty?
  • In what ways are you failing to recognize your own poverty?

This is just a starting point—there’s a lot more to think about! If you’d like to go deeper, you may want to check out our online course: Are You A Good Neighbor? It’s full of additional ideas and activities to help you explore better ways to love people who are materially poor in your community.

Brian Fikkert

Brian Fikkert

Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts as well as Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance.


  1. Joe Garner on May 12, 2021 at 9:07 pm

    Do not judge others! I work as a volunteer to supply food to the poor. It is easy to judge others by the nice car they use to pick up their food, their nice dress, et. al. We just do not know the true circumstances of what someone may be experiencing in their lives.

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