When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts

By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
259 pages

I recently completed an eye-opening book on poverty. Below is a brief synopsis. I highly recommend the read.

The authors’ philosophy of poverty.

Soteriologically speaking, alleviating poverty is part of God’s work on earth now. Jesus did not come to earth so we could have our sins forgiven and then sit around waiting for Heaven. He came to establish the Kingdom of Heaven now - a new way of living, experiencing what life would be like if God was the King. We will not fully enjoy that life until we enter the next life, but Christians ought to strive for physical representations of that kingdom TODAY.

When it comes to fixing poverty, we Westerners typically think throwing money at it will work. We fail to realize that lack of money isn’t the only problem in the world. Brokenness is everywhere - in relationships with other people, in our relationship with God, even within ourself. The rich are not superior to the poor. In fact, many a rich person is miserable, over-stressed, and incredibly busy for no reason at all. This person is experiencing relational poverty.

True help for a poverty-stricken individual is not a matter of giving them money. It is helping them find assistance holistically. Do things that add value, self-esteem, and confidence to their individuality. And learn from them, too.

Not all poverty is created equal.

Tsunami strikes and tents cities are very different situations. Likewise, the way we help should be different, too.

The authors define three kinds of help: Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development. Relief is helping the bleeding stop. Someone who just lost their home in a fire needs food and shelter ASAP. Rehabilitation is about restoring people and communities to a precrisis condition. Work WITH them, not FOR them in this situation. Development is long-term, ongoing change. The writer types, “One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make – by far – is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.” (101)

“Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people they can do for themselves.” (109)

He calls this the McDevelopment approach, a fast food franchise approach to poverty alleviation. When we work with, not for, someone in rehabilitation or development, we are giving them ownership and enthusiasm for the project. We are giving them a sense of self respect, and building their self esteem. Giving handouts only cripples a poor person more, and frustrates the giver in the long run.

Broken people or broken systems?

The most powerful section of this book for me, a middle-class, white American, was the portion devoted to brokenness. Are poor people sometimes lazy, or foolish, or unmotivated, or addicted to harmful behavior? Yes, no doubt. But many are subject to a broken system as well. Some grow up in poor communities with little tax dollars to provide good education for children. These children grow up undereducated, and unable to provide adequate tax dollars for the school system to turn around; an endless cycle. Add to this a welfare system which penalizes people who get a job, and encourages them to deplete savings and retirement so they can receive more money.

This quote is powerful: "Which came first, the broken individual or the broken system? What happens when society cramps historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings; takes away their leaders; provides them with inferior education, healthcare, and employment systems; and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out of wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking?" (86) Those in poverty are operating in systems that are bent against their well-being.


Nearly ⅓ of the book recommends practical steps to alleviating poverty in the worst of conditions. The steps are too specific to get into with a book review. My main takeaways are as follows:
  1. I have a greater appreciation for the hardship that those in poverty face everyday.
  2. I have a greater awareness of my own brokenness, pride, and the needless stress that comes with my middle-class lifestyle.
  3. I walked away with a framework for considering how to best help those in poverty in my own backyard, as well as those living in slums far away from my home.