hungry adjective / hun·gry / ˈhəŋ-grē
a: feeling an uneasy or painful sensation from lack of food: feeling hunger (merriam-webster.com)
In Part 1 I revealed the misleading marketing used by those benefiting from the
hunger mythology, and how that marketing has influenced misperceptions of the realities of hunger in the U.S. These misperceptions have prevented the public from
1) understanding the real problem our communities are facing, and therefore, 2) fairly evaluating the efficacy of the programs we have employed to address it.
At a minimum, this misleading marketing is a serious breach of the public’s trust,
and more seriously, it is a disservice to the individuals who struggle to meet this basic need.
In the ten years Salt & Light operated as a typical food pantry what I came to realize was the majority of individuals standing in our food pantry line were not facing crisis situations requiring emergency relief. Instead, they were more often in a state of chronic need—which required a more developmental solution. Something else I learned through my own experiences was that if you intervene in a chronic situation with an emergency intervention (giving stuff) you develop dependency and create entitlement. Period. More importantly, one-way giving models to address chronic need diminish and disempower the very people they are trying to help.
So what are we to do?
Many people are struggling to meet their basic needs. Many people do need support, sometimes significantly, if they are to affect lasting change in their lives. The question isn’t whether or not people need help; the question is, “What is the best way to help?”
The reality of poverty is that it is very complex. For every family we encounter at
Salt & Light there are multiple factors contributing to their material poverty. From systemic injustices to personal choices, no two situations are exactly alike, so no one solution is going to “fix” it. Therein lies the problem. Not only are the programs we have employed to address poverty generally unhealthy, they do not allow for individualizing our response. An emergency room where every patient was treated as though they suffered from the same ailment would be unfathomable, yet that is exactly how we have approached poverty alleviation—and the results have been devastating.
Keeping with our medical analogy, if we are to effectively work with those in need, we cannot see them as simply someone to be “healed” or fixed. Part of the problem with the steps we have taken to alleviate poverty is our assumption we have all of the answers. Because of our arrogance and our ignorance we have simply done for individuals who we see as unable to do for themselves, when in reality, they possess skills, gifts, and abilities, and often have a far greater grasp on what “ails” them, and what is required to cure the problem than we will ever have. We must begin to see those seeking help as equal partners, engaging them in a process that begins with identifying their assets instead of their deficits.
In individualizing our support, and focusing on doing with instead of for, we must allow this core principle discussed in books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts to shape all of our efforts:
“Never do for someone what they have (or could have)
the capacity to do for themselves.”
Like many other parents, raising our four kids for my wife and I has been a regular struggle with striking a balance between doing for our children, and equipping them to do for themselves. Because we have no interest in bathroom duty or tying shoes when they’re 30, we recognized as they grew they needed to take on more and more responsibility for themselves if they were going to be independent, productive members of society.
More importantly, we saw what kind of person they were growing into when that balance was out of whack. When they became too dependent on us, or acted entitled, we quickly saw the error of our ways. We also saw the pride they experienced when they accomplished everything from simple tasks to more complex projects, and we learned that by doing for them those things they could do for themselves we actually robbed them of these experiences that so positively affected their self-worth and self-respect. This positive view of themselves, or quite simply, their dignity, is the foundation from which they feel empowered to make decisions, take action, and ultimately be all they were created to be.
Most parents are aware of these simple truths, but they have implications far beyond childrearing.
These truths are inherent not only in children, but adults as well. Methodologies like asset-based community development have become more widely accepted and implemented in communities all over the world. While these approaches have largely been utilized at a community level, I believe they can be practically implemented in individual situations as well.
The truth is many of those experiencing material poverty are hungry. They are hungry for respect. They are hungry for affirmation. They are hungry to contribute. They are hungry for opportunity—the opportunity to prove to themselves and others they are capable, and to experience the fullness of whom it is God created them to be—someone fearfully and wonderfully made by Him, full of skills, gifts, and abilities. As long as we deny them this opportunity they will never be full.