How to help without hurting

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10)

Over the next few weeks, our church will join with other area churches in collecting new, unwrapped toys for the Hartford City Mission Noah Christmas Store. The Noah Christmas Store is a store for parents of children in Hartford City Mission programs, where they can buy toys at a minimal “suggested donation” cost for their children for Christmas. In the Hartford City Mission flyer promoting this event to churches, they use the word “dignity” in describing what this opportunity affords low-income parents. It is worth reflecting on what that means.

In Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, "When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself", the authors do a masterful job of laying out how the way that individuals, churches, and organizations often go about the business of poverty relief can do more harm than good, both to the giver and to the one receiving help. One of the examples they give is around this very idea of giving Christmas presents. In the example they give, a church adopts a nearby housing project, going door-to-door in order to give gifts to the children in the buildings. The children, of course, are thrilled at the presents. The church members come away feeling good about the difference they have made in bringing joy and toys to “the least of these.” But the parents of these children, sadly, feel more shame in that these strangers are providing for their children what they can not provide for them on their own.

One of the authors’ theses is that the way we define poverty plays a major role in determining how we go about alleviating poverty. For most middle-class Americans, poverty is seen as a lack of material resources. Therefore, the solution is to give material resources, like Christmas presents, to the poor. But when low-income people are surveyed about what it means to be poor, the overwhelming aspect described is what the authors call “poverty of being”: they feel ashamed, inferior, worthless, useless, etc. It is hard to apply for and keep a job when that is your overwhelming feeling about yourself. And it is also more tempting to seek unhealthy outlets such as drinking or drugs in order to cope with the negative self-image.

The point is this: if the central aspect of poverty is not a lack of material resources but a “poverty of being,” a sense of shame and worthlessness, can you see how giving Christmas gifts to low-income children does not help but actually hurts? While such charity definitely brings joy to the children, it does so at the expense of the parents, whose feelings of shame and worthlessness are exacerbated, making it even harder to find the motivation to apply for and keep a job, or to avoid seeking unhealthy outlets to cope with their negative sense of self.

That is why the approach that Hartford City Mission is taking is so wise. They recognize that empowering parents to be the hero in the eyes of their children helps strengthen the family, build up the self-worth of the parent, and will ultimately do more to alleviate poverty than simply giving the gifts directly to the children in their program.

For more information on how you can help out with the store or donate gifts, contact us here.

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