Bob Smietana and Charles North have written a book I need and perhaps you do to: some good old fashioned common sense about economics. Some people have Good Intentions but not enough economic sense. I’ve asked Bob to converse with us about this issue today. The issue these writers are asking is not “if” we should help the poor; helping is a given. The question is “how best” to help the poor.
There?s an old saying that if you give a man – or a woman – a fish, they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.
Here?s the thing.
Teaching someone to fish is a pain. It means investing time, energy, and patience in another person. It may take years to accomplish. And there?s no guarantee of success. Just ask my grandfather. He tried for year to teach me to fish, and the only thing of note I caught was a shopping cart in a river. (True story)
That?s why I?m skeptical about the new enthusiasm for ministering to the poor among evangelicals.
Not that we don?t care about the poor, or don?t believe God cares about the poor.
It?s just that it feels so good to give people fish. There?s no long term investment involved. And little chance of failure. And then there?s the post fish-giving afterglow?that affirms us as such good Christians.
But solving poverty is a long term project, as Jeff Sachs pointed out in his book, The End of Poverty.
When I was a young idealistic Christian out to save the world, I thought that the cause of global poverty was perfectly clear. The rich countries, I assumed, stole all the poor countries money. So all it took to solve poverty was to give the money back.
Not so, says Sachs. While no one denies that rich countries stole from poor countries, and often wreaked havoc in them, that?s not the whole story.
In his book The End of Poverty, Sachs that back in the 1700s, everyone was poor. From Europe to India, Africa to Japan, almost everyone lived on a farm and barely eked out an existence. Wealth was consolidated in the hands of a few, and people hoped to live for forty years at best.
?Children died in vast numbers,? Sachs writes. ?Many waves of disease and epidemics, from the black death of Europe to smallpox and measles, regularly washed through society and killed mass numbers of people. Episodes of hunger and extreme weather and climatic fluctuations sent societies crashing.?
Then, beginning around 1750, life began to change in some places. Western Europe, which had already benefited from such agricultural advances as crop rotation, experienced the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in England and spreading throughout Europe and the New World was what Sachs calls ?The Great Transformation??putting some countries on the road to developing technologically advanced and wealthy societies, while leaving others behind.
Those left behind are caught in what Sachs calls the ?poverty trap.?
To develop a growing economy, people everywhere need to set aside part of their current incomes to invest in the future through better tools and equipment, medical treatments for better health, and education to increase future earnings. But the extreme poor have so few resources that everything they have and earn and produce is needed just to stay alive today. Nothing is left to invest for the future.
Without the ability to invest in the future, poor people?and poor nations?become trapped.
Getting out of the poverty trap is a long journey. And it involves slow, unsexy work, like building roads and schools and bridges and cell phone networks.
And it probably involves lots of factory jobs. Like the one my grandmother had, as seamstress in a Fall River, Massachusetts, knitting mill. She worked there decades, while my grandfather shoveled coal and swept floors in the nearby New Bedford school district
It was not very glorious work. And they lived in a forgotten neighborhood in New Bedford, one so unimportant that the state build a highway right over the small apartment house they lived in. An apartment so small, that my mom shared a bed with her grandmother.
But my grandparents built a better life for my mom, who, with a scholarship, went to college and became a nurse. The she and my dad built a better life for me and my brothers and sisters.
My mom and dad escaped poverty by developing what?s known as human capital, or spiritual assets.
Robert Fogel, University of Chicago economic historian and co-winner of the 1993 Nobel prize in economics, says that, in a developed country like the U.S., human capital is more important that material capital, like money or machinery.
Fogel defines spiritual assets as ?a sense of purpose, self-esteem, a sense of discipline, a vision of opportunity, and a thirst for knowledge,? and he says that these assets play an enormous role in whether people succeed or fail. Without spiritual assets, poor families have a hard time making the kinds of choices that can transform their lives.
But they can only be developed over the long haul, by one human being investing time love and energy in another human being.
Fogel defines spiritual assets as ?a sense of purpose, self-esteem, a sense of discipline, a vision of opportunity, and a thirst for knowledge,? and he says that these assets play an enormous role in whether people succeed or fail. Without spiritual assets, poor families have a hard time transforming their lives.
Delories Williams understood this.
For more than thirty years, Mrs. Williams, along with her friends Sethras Jones and Eloise Kelly, ran the Academic Excellence program at Oakdale Covenant Church, a 1,200-member African-American congregation on Chicago?s southwest side.
Working out of a small office in the basement of the school next to the church, they marshaled an army of volunteers to tutor children, to run college-exam prep courses, and to walk parents and students through the college-application and financial-aid processes.
They worked tirelessly, by word and deed, to help the children of the church build spiritual assets.
When they started in the 1970s, few children at Oakdale, located in an impoverished inner city neighborhood, went to college. Today, almost every child who grows up at Oakdale goes to college. Mrs. William had taught them to fish.
By the time Mrs. Williams died from ovarian cancer at 74 in the summer of 2007, she had helped hundreds of young people. At her memorial service, or ?home-going,? many of them stood up and testified about how Mrs. Williams transformed their lives.
?People came up and told us that she was the reason they became a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant,? says Catherine Gilliard, Mrs. Williams?s daughter. ?Everyone you met?they wanted to tell you a story about what my mother had done for them.?
Mrs. Williams spent the last few weeks of her life in the hospital, when the cancer made her too weak to stay at home. Even from her hospital bed, she kept busy, making calls to colleges and checking up on her students, making the most of every moment. When she was no longer able to speak, she passed notes to her friend Sethras Jones with names of students to follow up on.
What kept her going? Her undying faith in Jesus and her belief that education could help save young people, no matter what their circumstances.
And then there were the miracles.
Not long before she died, Mrs. Williams had seen another one, as Joy Dillard, an eighteen-year veteran of the Academic Excellence ministry recalled while sitting with a group of Oakdale volunteers and college students.
?I do know firsthand that she could work miracles,? Dillard said. ?My son, in his junior year, started bringing one of his friends from high school to Oakdale. And his friend eventually joined. I loved him to death but I knew that no college was going to accept him.?
But Mrs. Williams knew better. She helped the young man with his college applications, and pushed him to rewrite his application essay over and over until it was nearly perfect. He eventually enrolled in Alabama A&M University and is on schedule to graduate on time.
But that?s not all, Dillard said.
?He called this summer and asked for some information, because he was thinking about applying to law school,? she said. ?This was a boy who we thought was not going to be able to get into any college. She got him into that college. He stayed?money was always an issue but he made it through?and now he?s talking about going to law school. That was Mrs. Williams in action. It?s one more life that has been saved.?
Mrs. Williams knew that miracles take a long time, and require not just good intentions, but commitment, hard work, ingenuity, and longsuffering, patient love.
Go and do likewise.