November 2, 2019

Why Most of What You Believe About Poverty is Wrong

The Alternative was recommended to me as a bit of a ‘game changer’. It would have to be pretty special to beat Brian Fikkert’s, When Helping Hurts, but I gave it a go anyway.

What we basically have here is a critique of the United States Social Services from a practitioner of almost three decades. Mauricio is the son of a Mexican immigrant who, tragically, shot herself in the head in a Las Vegas hotel in order to avoid her son having to pay her spiralling medical bills. It’s a book that is an homage to her hard work and monumental efforts in ensuring he got a good education as he went on to study at Berkeley University.

Straight from the off, the author attacks current trends and approaches to dealing with poverty in the U.S.A. He constantly talks of having an alternative approach to handling and dealing with those who struggle economically. In fact, he goes further than that, and accuses those with liberal (and some conservative) ideologies of worsening poverty, often out of their own self-interest to be in a job. Early on, he quotes from MLK Jr, stating: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (p.3)

One of the big challenges of the book is the practice of so-called helpers and charity workers (of all guises) in this sector who only promote the negativity of poor communities in order to keep their funding, their jobs, or create further employment for themselves. This negative focus, he asserts, downplays the strengths and talents of people from poor communities.

We would do well as church planters and fundraisers to take heed of Mauricio’s advice here. We must ensure that as we present the needs of our communities, we are not over-egging the pudding when it comes to quoting crimes stats, poverty levels, drug problems, etc. They exist, but so do wonderful people who devote their lives to the communities that we’re seeking to reach. It’s not all doom and gloom. The problem is that potential funders often want to hear all the gory statistics, expecting us to prove how needy and bad our areas are before they part with their cash.

Mauricio explains this in detail in one of his chapters: “To qualify for my programs people had to highlight their weaknesses, their deficiencies. The more helpless you presented yourself to be, the more eligible you were for services.” (p.5)

He then cites the example of two young gang members who were trying to get out of their difficult situation. One of the lads had committed a robbery and the other had no criminal record. Because of restrictions on his funding, he could only accept the lad with the criminal background because he qualified as ‘the most needy’. The other lad was not accepted because his lack of lawbreaking meant he didn’t fall within their ‘needy parameters’. He was, in effect, rewarding criminal behaviour. Alongside this, in his experience, the more needy he could paint a community, the more funding he got. The more funding he got, the more people he could employ to ‘help’ these needy people. ‘Poverty pimping’ is what he calls it, and it is rife among agencies seeking to help the poor and needy.

One of his big assertions is that the welfare system does not help people escape (financial) poverty. The problem lies in the fact that, “. . . benefits are reduced as your income goes up and almost disappears you earn more than poverty level income.” (p.36)

He’s right. It’s the same in the schemes. So, for example, a young couple with three children get their rent and rates paid by the state. They also receive child benefits and JSA (Job Seeker’s Allowance). In order for them to live at the same level as they currently live under that system, they need to be earning close to £1,800 per month after tax. When both are barely literate and unskilled, that is never going to happen. Even if one of them does happen to get a low-paid job, it affects their benefits so dramatically that they end up losing money when they work. Therefore, they have no motivation to get a job. It’s not about laziness for them. It’s about simple economic mathematics. They’re not sponging-off the system. They're trapped by it.

Chapter 3, on privilege and its opposite is, again, another devastating critique on how the middle classes view the poor. “There is a built-in advantage enjoyed by people who are raised in a world where they don’t have to constantly worry about money. The privileged have access to choices and networks of support and opportunities I hadn’t imagined.” (p.38)

I see this now even in my own children. My eldest could sit and talk openly about what university she would like to go to. That’s incredible to me. That sort of talk never happened in my (so-called) ‘homes’ growing up. The best I could hope for after school was a job on the sites with my dad or one of the local factories. University wasn’t for the likes of us (as my dad often said). But not only can my girl talk about universities, she’s now attending one overseas! This is privilege, and she doesn’t even realise it.

Mauricio writes: “Education is, of course, one of the strategies our country employs to create upward mobility. But while there are programs to help kids from poor families get into college, there are few ways to help them survive once admitted.” (p.41)

The working class and the middle class live in two different worlds, and this becomes obvious in places of higher education. But, you say, there are still opportunities to go to these places. Here’s Mauricio’s point, and I think it’s a good one. “Opportunities were for the exceptional—the homeless kid smart enough to be at the top of the class at Harvard, or the kid overwhelmed with problems who becomes a program’s success story. Being ordinary (and poor) did not make you competitive for opportunities or services.” (p.65)

It’s a book that has a lot of questions and hints all the way through at what he calls, the alternative. And the alternative, when we get there, is basically investing in community relationships. He thinks less money should be spent on hiring professionals to help the poor and more on local families.

This is a book with a one-dimensional view of poverty (material lack and opportunity lack) and it doesn’t even pretend to be spiritual. The answers he offers are pretty obvious. Let the poor decide for themselves what they need, create a leadership vacuum, and let them fill it. But it does not take into effect the real and lasting damage the social state has done to our communities. He denies it, but there is an underclass who have no interest in working and who will milk all they can from the state. His alternative will fall on deaf ears here. But there is still real merit in the book. He thinks the answer to the poor is to empower them toward self-actualisation. I think the answer is to empower them by introducing them to the gospel of Jesus and helping them to grow in a local church.

I agree with him that professionalising social services merely accentuates and perpetuates the class divide between the middle class and the poor. I see it in the church’s approach to mercy ministry all the time. When we make ministry to the needy areas all about handouts and us serving them, rather than real partnership and relationship, it perpetuates the ‘them and us’ mentality and reinforces the class divide.

We often want to help people out of pity. But pity actually disempowers the poor. We do for them what we should be helping them to do for themselves or helping them reach their wider friends and family. After all, how did they survive until we came along on our white horses? There are no easy answers to these questions. But there is gospel hope. Now, more than ever, Scotland’s poor need the hope of gospel churches.

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