The “It’s Complicated” Relationship Between Poverty and Dignity

A number of years ago, Phil and I were in a difficult financial situation. I had been unemployed for several months despite my persistent attempts to find a job, and the mailbox was full of envelopes stamped in angry red letters, “Last notice”. One day, when we had just $10 in our checking account, and no reserves, I stood at the gas pump doing math in my head. “For six dollars, I can buy 2.5 gallons of gas. The car gets 27 mpg. It is 20 miles to Phil’s office. That should be enough to last until his next payday. I’ll use the last four dollars to buy a gallon of milk.”

That same week, a friend happened to hear of my difficulty by reason of tears I couldn’t hide in time. She asked what was wrong. I broke down and told her the whole story. Being my friend and a wonderful human being, she immediately took out her checkbook and wrote me a check for $300, no further questions asked, no repayment required.

It was a tremendously generous gesture and to this day, I am moved by her act. But there was a consequence of her gift that neither of us had anticipated. I felt shame. Had I somehow manipulated her into giving to me? I hadn’t intended to. Her own finances probably were stretched by the gift. How could I have taken it from her? The money helped, but what I really needed was a job.

For the next several months, the vague sense of dishonor returned every time I saw her. I didn’t post on my Facebook when we scraped together the money to go out to dinner because I didn’t want her to see. When I wore a pair of shoes that looked new, I felt like I had to explain to her that they weren’t new. How could such a kind gift produce such a humiliating consequence?

As a missionary working in some of the poorest countries on earth, I hesitate to tell this story in this context. Even in my moment of poverty, I still had a car to drive and a home to go to. I never missed a meal, had electricity and running water and clothes to wear. My situation was not dire. But the story still illustrates my point. There is a complicated relationship between poverty and dignity.

In their book, “When Helping Hurts,” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe an exercise in which they asked various people to define poverty.

While poor people [in low-income countries] mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. [pg 51]

Interesting, isn’t it? That people living in some of the lowest income places on earth don’t define their poverty solely as a lack of money.

Think about how you might feel if you needed a foreign person to send you money every month so you could feed your children. Would you feel thankful, but oddly ashamed at the same time?

Might you feel a little humiliated, too, if a tourist in your country snapped a picture of your child sitting in the dirt and then used it to elicit sympathy for their fund-raising campaign?

What kind of desperation would drive you to surrender your child to an orphanage supported by a church far away because they might give your child a better life than you could? Would you not wonder why someone wasn’t using those same donations to create opportunities for you so that you could support your own child?

What if your child got a letter from a child in a far-away country who was far richer than you, asking your child what it was like to be poor? Would you feel inferior? Embarrassed? Marginalized?

Might you feel a little voiceless if you ran a shop selling clothes, school supplies or toys, and a church in a foreign country spent more money than you would earn in a year to ship a container of the same items, to be given out in your town for free? Would you wish they had used the money they spent to ship the container to purchase from you instead? Would you fear what the influx of free goods in your town might do to your income?

So what am I really saying? Am I saying that my friend did something wrong in giving me a check for $300? Am I saying that we shouldn’t participate in child-sponsorship ministries or support orphan care initiatives or donate material goods?

No. That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying that sometimes help, even help with the purest of intentions, has unintended consequences. I’m saying that sometimes our helping hurts. I’m saying that all of us, missionaries, pastors, lay-people, anyone who wants to help others, can and should consider the dignity of those they want to help.

The fact of the matter is, we like to know who we help. We want the personal connection. We want to put the picture of the child on our fridge, or see before and after videos for the project we gave to. And that isn’t wrong, but it shouldn’t drive our methods. We should be careful that we respect the dignity of people- as capable and intelligent, made in the image of God and not just an object of pity- even if it means we miss the photo-op.
For example:

  • There are child-sponsorship programs that protect the dignity of those they help by channeling funds into projects that benefit many children and their families without putting people in situations that might be embarrassing for them.
  • There are a lot of great orphan-care ministries run through local churches. These ministries place local orphaned children in homes and communities, and help support parents who might otherwise be tempted to surrender their children to an orphanage. These types of ministries have an extra sparkle in their shine because they elevate the local church. The entire community sees the local church caring for children in need, which draws people to the church.
  • A clothing and school-supply outreach is a fantastic idea, and if the organizers are deliberate to purchase locally, more sparkle in the shine. We heard a story recently of a church in the US that wanted to purchase school supplies for children in need in Togo. The church sent a financial donation to the school. The school, a Christian school operated by the local church, purchased the supplies from the vendor next door, a Muslim man. The man was so touched by the idea that a church in America would support his business that he continued to donate supplies to the school in the months and years following.

These are just a few examples of hundreds of ministries endeavoring to be deliberate about when, where, why, and how they engage with the materially poor. A small adjustment to our practices, our attitudes, and our responses can make a big difference. By making informed decisions, we can avoid  unintended consequences and do a better job of showing the world the light of Jesus.




6 thoughts on “The “It’s Complicated” Relationship Between Poverty and Dignity

  1. Kenton Moody says:

    I enjoyed your blog post! It is definitely complicated and many times there are no right or wrong, black and white answers to the issues. One of the largest sources of income for El Salvador and many other Central American countries are the funds sent back by family members living and working in the US or other countries. Family helps family. When ever they come to visit (by the thousands in December), they bring large suitcases filled with gifts. It is all part of the culture of loving and giving.

    An interesting verse on community development is found in I Thess. 4:11,12 “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Almost five years ago, we planted a church with the idea that it would be patterned after the church in the book of Acts, where there was no need amongst them because everyone shared what they had with each other. We’re not totally there yet, but it is definitely been an interesting and rewarding journey.

    Keep up the great writing!


    • Malcolms in Africa says:

      Thanks for reading Kenton. I am not sure it the family-helping-family angle even crossed my mind, as I have no experience this culture. In our part of the world, family definitely helps family but I couldn’t speak to the emotional and social implications within culture of that practice.I was really more addressing some of the implications of churches and individuals who want to do a cross-cultural project and have already decided they know exactly what they want to do, without realizing what the unintended consequences might be.

      Great verse! Thanks for sharing. I’ll add your church to my prayer list.


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