Understanding Our Vision for Poverty Alleviation
Adapted from When Helping Hurts.
If we want to see an end to material poverty, we need a clear vision of what this looks like. Just as our diagnosis of the causes of poverty shapes the remedies we pursue, so too does our idea of the ultimate goal of poverty alleviation.
Poverty is rooted in broken relationships with God, ourselves, others, and all creation—and this should form the foundation for the principles, applications, and methods we pursue in sustainable, effective efforts to fight poverty. Our next few posts will look at some of the ways we can identify and pursue God’s goals for this work.
A Case Study
Imagine this scenario:1 a woman and her children live in a public housing project known for domestic and gang-related violence in a large American city.
Because she had become pregnant at the age of sixteen, this woman dropped out of high school and became dependent on government assistance to provide for her needs. Over the next few years, she had four more children, and none of the children’s fathers helped with parenting or financial support.
With few marketable skills, an unstable family life, and limited social networks, she struggled to raise her children in an environment characterized by widespread substance abuse, limited educational opportunities, high rates of unemployment, frequent violence, and little sense of community and civic engagement.
From time to time, she tried to get a job, but a number of obstacles kept her from finding and keeping regular work.
First, there are simply not a lot of decent-paying jobs for people in her situation—without a high school degree and severe schedule constraints because of her children’s needs. Between school and childcare pickup and drop off times, and having no one else to step in when one of her kids got sick, she was seen as an unreliable employee.
Second, the government assistance system in her state actually penalizes her for earning too much money, taking away benefits for every additional dollar she earned or every asset she acquired past a certain threshold, so that her net income actually goes down the harder she works.
Third, she found a lot of vocational training and jobs assistance programs provided by her city and state to be confusing and staffed by people who seemed overworked and unable to change the systems that were holding her back.
All of this led this woman to feel defeated, believing she was inferior to others or inadequate to the challenges of life. Whenever she has tried to get training or a new job and run into one of these obstacles, she quickly loses confidence and retreats back to a place of at least predictable status quo—public housing and regular (if inadequate) government assistance. But this isn’t true safety or stability. She feels trapped, and she and her family often talk about how they don’t think they’ll ever be able to get out of their situation.
How Do You Help without Hurting?
How can your church or ministry help to alleviate poverty for this woman and so many like her in similar situations? What does success look like for her? For your church or ministry?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but moving in the right direction involves exploring the rest of the grand narrative of the Bible.
In another post we diagnosed the problem of poverty by examining the first two acts of the biblical drama: “creation” and “fall.” We saw that humans were created to live in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. But the fall has broken these relationships for each of us. The good news is that there are two remaining acts in the story: “redemption” and “consummation” (when Jesus returns to make all things new).
The Kingdom That Is Both Here and Still Coming
Poverty consists of broken relationships. In addition, the brokenness in these relationships is expressed not just at a personal level but also in the economic, political, social, and religious systems that humans create. In this light, how can we alleviate poverty in general, and this woman’s situation in particular?
Let’s consider Colossians 1:19–20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Are We There Yet?
Jesus is not just saving our souls out of planet Earth so we can play harps and float on clouds like a cartoonish vision of heaven. Rather, in Scripture we see Jesus bringing reconciliation to every last speck of the universe, including both our broken relationships and the systems that flow from and contribute to that brokenness. If poverty ultimately comes from human beings’ fall into sin, so the solutions to poverty must be ultimately rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again.
Of course, the full reconciliation of all things will not happen until the final coming of the kingdom, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Only then will every tear be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).
There is real mystery concerning how much progress we can expect to see in our lives and the brokenness of the world before Jesus comes again (Christians from different traditions can disagree while still striving to read and apply the Bible well!). But the task at hand for Christians seems very clear. The King of kings is ushering in a kingdom that will make all things new, and bring healing far as the curse is found. As His body, bride, and fullness (Eph. 1:23, 5:32), the church is to do what Jesus did: bear witness to the reality of that coming kingdom in both words and deeds. We can then trust God to “establish the work of our hands” as He chooses (Ps. 90:17).
We need to remember that whatever goal we are aiming at in poverty alleviation (housing, healthcare, work, getting out of debt, etc.), we need to see how it connects to the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world and in the life of every person we walk with. Only the one who is restoring all things has the power to truly restore each of us to all He has created us to be.