The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong
by Mauricio L. Miller
This book was recommended to me recently as a bit of a ‘game changer’. It would have to be pretty special to beat Brian Fikkert’s, ‘When Helping Hurts’, but I gave it a go anyway.
What we basically have here is a critique of the United States Social Services from a practitioner of almost three decades. Mauricio’s mom, a Mexican immigrant, tragically shot herself in the head while staying in a Las Vegas hotel room. She couldn’t live with the idea of having Mauricio pay for her spiraling medical bills. It’s a book that is a homage to her hard work and monumental efforts in ensuring he got a good education as he went on to study at Berkeley University.
Straight from the off, the author attacks current trends and approaches to dealing with poverty in the USA. He constantly talks of having an alternative approach to handling and dealing with those who struggle economically. In fact, he goes further than that, he accuses those with liberal (and some conservative) ideologies of worsening poverty, often out of their own self interest for employment. Early on he quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.:
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. (p3)
We must ensure that we are not over egging the pudding, quoting crime stats & drug problems.
One of the big challenges of this book is the practice of so-called helpers and charity workers (of all guises), who only promote the negativity of poor communities in order to keep their funding, their jobs, or create employment for themselves. This negative focus, he asserts, downplays the strengths and talents of people from poor communities. We would do well as church planters and fundraisers to take heed of Mauricio’s advice here. We must ensure that in our presentations of the needs of our communities that we are not over egging the pudding when it comes to quoting crime stats and drug problems etc. They exist, but so do wonderful people who devote their lives to the communities that we are seeking to reach. It’s not all doom and gloom. The problem is: often the funders of this work want to hear all the gory statistics and so we need to prove how needy and broken our areas are before they part with their cash.
He explains this in detail in one of his chapters:
To qualify for my programs, people had to highlight their weaknesses, their deficiencies. The more helpless you presented yourself to be, the more eligible you were for services. (p5)
He cites the example of two young gang members who were trying to get out of their difficult situation. One of the lads had committed a robbery and the other had no criminal record. Because of restrictions on his funding, he could only accept the lad with the criminal background because he qualified as ‘the most needy’. The other lad was not accepted because his lack of lawbreaking meant he didn’t fall within their ‘needy parameters’. He was in effect, says Mauricio, rewarding criminal behaviour. Alongside this, in his experience, the more needy he could paint a community, the more funding he got. The more funding he got, the more people he could employ to ‘help’ these needy people.
‘Poverty pimping’ is what he calls it, and it is rife among agencies seeking to help the poor and needy.
One of his big assertions is that the welfare system does not help people escape financial poverty. The problem lies in the fact that,
benefits are reduced as your income goes up and almost disappears as you earn more than poverty level income. (p36)
They’re not sponging off the system, they are trapped by it.
Of course he is right. It is the same here in the schemes of Scotland. For example, a young couple with three children get their rent and rates paid by the state. They also receive child benefits and Job Seeker’s Allowance. In order for them to live at the same level as they currently live, dependent on that system, they need to be earning close to £1800 per month (after tax). This is never going to happen, especially when you consider that both are illiterate and unskilled. Even if one of them does get a low paid job, it would affect their benefits so dramatically that they would end up with less money. Therefore, they have no motivation to seek employment. It’s not about laziness for them. It’s about simple economic mathematics. They’re not sponging off the system, they are trapped by it.
Chapter 3 on privilege and its opposite is, again, another devastating critique on how the middle classes view the poor.
There is a built in advantage enjoyed by people who are raised in a world where they don’t have to constantly worry about money. The privileged have access to choices and networks of support and opportunities I hadn’t imagined. (p38)
I see this now even in my own children. My eldest sits and openly talks about what university she would like to go to. That is incredible to me. That sort of talk never happened in my (so-called) homes growing up. The best I could hope for after school was a job on the sites with my dad or one of the local factories. University wasn’t for the likes of us (as my dad often said). But not only can my girl talk about universities, she can also dream of going to one overseas. This is privilege and she doesn’t even realise it!
Education is, of course, one of the strategies our country employs to create upward mobility. But while there are programs to help kids from poor families get into college, there are few ways to help them survive once admitted. (p41)
The working class and the middle class live in two different worlds and this becomes obvious in places of higher education. But, you might say, there are still opportunities to go to these places. Here’s Mauricio’s point, and I think it’s a good one.
Opportunities were for the exceptional – the homeless kid smart enough to be at the top of the class at Harvard, or the kid overwhelmed with problems who becomes a program’s success story. Being ordinary (and poor) did not make you competitive for opportunities or services. (p65)
This is a book that has a lot of questions, and it hints all the way through to what it refers to as “the alternative.” And the alternative, when we get there, is investing in community relationships. He thinks less money should be spent on hiring professionals to help the poor and more on local families. It’s a book with a one dimensional view of poverty (material lack and opportunity lack) and it doesn’t even pretend to be spiritual. The answers he offers are pretty obvious. Let the poor decide for themselves what they need, create a leadership vacuum and let them fill it. But it does not take into effect the real and lasting damage the social state has done to our communities. He denies it, but there is an underclass who have no interest in working and who will milk all they can from the state. His alternative will fall on deaf ears here. But there is still real merit in the book. He thinks the answer to the poor is to empower them toward self actualisation. I think the answer is to empower them by introducing them to the gospel of Jesus and helping them to grow in a local church.
Transformed sinners living transformed lives; transform communities.
I agree with him, professionalising social services merely accentuates and perpetuates the class divide between the middle class and the poor. I see it in the church’s approach to mercy ministry all of the time. When we make ministry to the needy areas all about handouts and us serving them, rather than real partnership and relationship, it perpetuates the ‘them and us’ mentality and reinforces the class divide. We often want to help people out of pity. But pity actually disempowers the poor. We do for them what we should be helping them to do for themselves, or for their wider friends and family. After all, how did they survive until we came along on our white horses? There are no easy answers to these questions. But there is gospel hope. The poor, as much as anybody, need the hope of gospel churches. Transformed sinners living transformed lives is what truly transforms communities.