Saturday, June 18, 2011

What does successful poverty alleviation look like?

I have a hard time thinking about what it looks like to change the situation of someone in poverty without thinking in specifics. Fikkert and Corbett in When Helping Hurts give two specific examples that actually really parallel the kinds of material poverty that I've seen.

The story of Alisa is really familiar. When I moved to Chicago for college, my very first ministry work was in an after school program called Brothas and Sistas United. I believe the program is either defunct or the name has been changed, but to get there we had to take the train and walk through the street and alleys to a renovated warehouse. It was exposed brick, cement floors, and no finishing. The kids came, rambunctious and uncontrolled, all different ethnicities. I didn't realize until the end of my time there that these kids were the children of parents in the homeless shelter that met upstairs. One girl that I talked to was about to enter middle school, and she told her her mom was in a wheelchair. She took care of her mom and her siblings. She'd never known her Dad. Despite having a huge and convoluted extended family, every single male relative she had was in jail.

I worked in three different after school mentoring programs throughout my time in Chicago. That world was filled with people like the character of Alisa in the book. Intact families with one father and one mother and their children are rare. Living on welfare is common. The public school system in the inner city is terrible. Drugs are easy to find, and prime gang recruitment age is 8 years old. Eating healthy is unheard of - kids hardly know what real vegetables are. Grocery stores are few and far between, and how do you shop for all your food when you can only get around by bus and carry a couple bags? The kids live on soda and chips and pizza.

A month or so ago when Isaac's sister and brother-in-law came into town, I got to hear about the work they do through one of the same kids programs that I used to work with in Chicago - my favorite one. It was amazing to realize that they were working with the older kids - the ones that used to be little when I was working with the little kids. Turns out the girl I got to know best, who was in a photo on my wall for years, is still going to the program and being mentored now by my sister-in-law. I love that...

In any case, how do you alleviate poverty in the inner city. It's absolutely possible - there are opportunities. However, after living there and seeing it it feels like the whole system is a trap. When the kids grow up in a world with no examples of people that live outside of the gang and welfare world, how can they possibly see a way to live any differently? Good education isn't given to them, the desire to study isn't passed on from parents, and the vision for a career  is never imparted. On the other hand, unwed mothers and drugs ARE the constant example. How can you change that? Pouring money in can keep people from total destitution, but the authors of this book are right. Without a fundamental shift in worldview, change will not happen.

I've seen international poverty too, though some of what people think is poor is simple living a simple life, much different than the Western world. Some of it is poverty, though. The room I lived in for my underclassmen years of high school looked down a slight hill into the village below, a village filled with migrants from interior villages who had come to the city for world. The houses were made of boards and tin or thatched roofs. Pigs and chickens wandered around. I could hear, at times, the keening of mourners, a husband and wife having a fight, or kids screaming. I never entered that society, I only observed it.

A woman who lives there now often blogs about the people she loves in this community, and her writing exposes the deep dysfunction that lies underneath the surface. One recent post talked about the attempted suicide of one young woman, and a followup post about the same woman and some of the local area drunks (some of the drunks in that same area accosted me when I passed them on my motorbike one day in high school).

How do you change that society? Like the Native Americans in the US, that local population feels pushed out of their own land and are rife with social problems, alcoholism, drug use, and unemployment. They've lost their tradition and have no moral grounding to replace it.

The same thing goes, actually, with the emotional, spiritual, and relational poverty I encountered while working with some of the upper crust of Chicago while in the event-planning business. The emptiness, the listlessness, the broken families and angry children and the constant need to distract - be it with sexual dalliances, buying the newest and best thing, wining and dining in the nicest spots.... in the end, though, there were so many deeply lonely and desperate people.  They had money, but their poverty was still deep and systematic and hard to change.

Change... real change.... is rare. Throwing money at material poverty doesn't enact change. However, I do still believe we are called to give (and give money) to those who need it. Even if the situation doesn't change. I don't want to act as though that isn't necessary sometimes and even an obligation. It's just that giving money won't necessarily help or change anything. True change requires a shift in worldview. The best and most complete change, I believe, comes from submission to Christ and reorienting ones life around Him.

I did think Fikkert is right on with this thought:

"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."

I agree that that poverty is both systematic and individual, and the system, society, and individual all need to be rewired for true change to take place. Since the next part of the book moves from the framework to practical application, I'm excited to see where they go next.

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