Book Review: When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and YourselfWhen Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just a note: I read the first edition. Some of what is below they may have been addressed in subsequent versions. I am not sure.

The first part of this book was first rate. The authors clearly show the mistakes that we have made in helping the poor on both a corporate and individual level. They encourage proper evaluation of what is actually needed to help someone alleviate material poverty. The spend quite a bit of time talking about different types of poverty, such as poverty of being or poverty of spiritual intimacy. They then discuss how a Christian world view will address all areas of need, not just the material ones. We need to restore people physically, in their relationships both at home and in the community, and in their life with God. They also note the waste of just throwing money at the problem. They encourage Christians to never do for someone else what they can do for themselves. Finally, they try to balance systematic injustices which can lead to material poverty with the responsibility of the individual. The basic ideas and premises of the book are sorely needed.

But there are also some drawbacks, especially in the second part of the book. First, the greatest “systematic injustice” in our country is the current policy of the US Government. The authors address past injustices, but not current ones. In my mind this is not a minor blip in their program. It is a major one. For example, they mention that Christian business owners could hire the materially poor. But what does a Christian business owner do when he has to hire the poor at minimum wage and the minimum wage keeps going up? This restricts what he can and cannot do. Can he afford to hire someone with a sketchy work history at $8, $9, or $10 per hour? In other words, the US Government is one of the greatest obstacles to poverty alleviation. The authors do not address this with the depth it requires.

Second, they give a consistent picture that only African-Americans or Hispanics are poor. Occasionally they will mention the poor in Appalachia or the “suburban poor”, but for some reason they focus on minorities. I grew up in a very poor, white community in Mississippi and I live in West Virginia, which is poor and mostly white. I am not sure why they cannot just say, “the materially poor” without adding a whole host of racial stereotypes to the equation.

Third, there are a few inconsistencies. For example, they claim giving immediate physical aid is usually not the answer. Yet when they address public schooling (p. 187) they seem to think the biggest problem is that they do not have enough money. That seemed to be inconsistent with their idea that immediate relief is rarely the answer. In other words, I think they would apply their principles differently than I would apply their principles.

Overall though, the book is worth reading and digesting. I have already used the ideas in my home and church life. I expect the principles laid out to impact my ministry, outlook on missions, and ministry to the poor for years to come.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: When Helping Hurts

  1. Pastor Jones – fantastic review. I have just finished reading the book myself and really benefitted from your insights. Thank you for posting – please keep up the good reviews. Love and prayers, Ben


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