5 Essential Principles of Poverty-Alleviation

When I entered into the life of inner city ministry I moved into an environment that soaked me in a vision of the world that informed our activities. The ministry was called African Caribbean American Catholic Center and it operated in the inner city areas of Southwest Florida. Belonging to the Catholic Diocese of Venice, it was a great place to serve.

There, a call to action was consistent and it was based on wonderful ideas such as “solidarity” and the “care of the poor.” For the most part, activity controlled our life of ministry. Conversation and even an occasional debate occurred but we never arrived at a challenge of our most basic assumptions about the poor and about our activities. I entered the ministry as youth director and I was constantly on the move. Our intentions were good and we thought that they were consistent with loving the poor, as we are commanded. It was as if the power of the will was at the helm and the call of reason was only instrumental.

It was not until some years later, when I became the executive director, that  a clash of paradigms began to brew within me. As I saw the children of those to whom I used to give free stuff coming for stuff themselves, I was shook to my core. It was as if I had suddenly awakened from a dream and a leap in consciousness emerged. A new way of being one with the poor suddenly appeared as a possibility and even as a demand. For the first time in my ministry work I felt dissatisfied with what I was doing. I saw that I was simply a “stuff-giver”, a bureaucrat of compassion, and under the weight of the free stuff I was dumping at the poor was their spirit, slouching aimlessly, awaiting. 

A critical truth I have come to embrace is that the human person is not only called to change but also to choose. Christian anthropology asserts that from the beginning of our lives we are created as subjects, not objects moved by forces; even if these forces are well intended. In pursuit of the safety that a parasitic life offers, some find comfort in the boredom of meaningless life or on the pity of others. The truth is that much of what we were doing for the poor was about ourselves and how it made us feel. We began and ended in moral posture that justified our endless call for resources to pass on to others; never daring to challenge the poor themselves, as that was blaming the victim. We had become the brokers and middlemen of a flow of goods passing from a set of hands to another but barely making a dent in the condition of those who ended up with the loot. It was an ineffective exercise and the two-by-four of such realization hit me on the head as I saw these souls destined for greatness fall in line to get their supplies. I thank God for that whooping!

Let me briefly mention a few principles I have come to realize are essential in poverty-alleviation efforts and might help us avoid the trap of becoming poverty managers, instead of committed Christians faithfully present in the midst of the poor:


Freedom is simple; slavery entangles your life in myriad of manacles. Comprehensive systems of care kill the light of freedom and incentivize permanence in the condition of poverty. They see the things we give or the services we render as the end of a program to meet the “unmet needs” of the poor. It is a trap. Simple programs focus on one aspect of individual or social life to show the way and see what the person receives as instrumental to the communication of a value and the offering of incentives toward action.


Yes, successful programs attempt to target a real need; practicality implies usefulness and usefulness attracts people. Some who defend freedom or want to insist on the truths of faith are often out there, afar from the realities of the poor. They do not dare to touch the poor themselves! They write these wonderful books that the already-convinced read, the books goes into a shelf and the ideas die right there. They often are detached from the lives of the poor so they cannot acquire the needed information to actually help people. Practicality is only correctly perceived in closeness and encounter.


The communication of a value or the creation of an incentive toward action must become the end of every effective poverty-alleviation project. Programs of great meaning avoid looking at the poor as helpless victims and passive recipients of magnanimity. The meaning of a program must be informed by your anthropology, that is,  by what you think of the persons you aim to assist. Once you see a person as the protagonist of the story of his or her own life, instead of as scenery in the drama of your good intentions, you are going somewhere. Remember, the end of a program is the value it communicates.

Subsidiary Understanding.

The term has a similar root as the principle of subsidiarity but it means “of secondary importance.” A subsidiary furnishes aid or support but never becomes of the essence for the completion of a task; others control it and in this case it ought to be the poor themselves. Even better, every individual person controls it as it pertains to him or herself. The temptation to control, what theologian Michael Novak has called the totalistic impulse, is there every time your organization grows so much that you begin to take yourself too seriously. No one else but you can do the task so you need a chapter of your organization everywhere. Comprehensive systems thrive in bureaucratic ways that end up stifling initiative. There is no life there because the poor themselves become subsidiary to the system. Ironically, many programs are invested in poverty because poverty brings the money in; thus rendering the poor subsidiary to their efforts.


Because your program is simple, it is something that others can adapt to the realities of their local communities. As with scientific studies, if we cannot replicate a program and get similar results, then this suggests error, leading to potentially detrimental questions about the reliability of the program. However, some take it as a testament of their own importance, which leads to comprehensiveness and the temptation to create top-down approaches.

Jan 292014
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