Book Review: When Helping Hurts

We are surrounded by the poor. They are everywhere. They are us. Yes, as broken people part of a broken system, we are poor. Until we understand this, we cannot provide others with effective, long-term help.

In their book When Helping Hurts (Moody, 2012), Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert uncover middle-class American misconceptions regarding poverty.

Corbett is a community development specialist for the Chalmers Center at Covenant College and assistant professor in the Covenant College department of economics and community development. Fikkert is an economics professor at Covenant College as well as the founder and president of the Chalmers Center. Together, they crafted a poverty handbook rich in personal experience and humility. Using real-life examples, they take the reader on a journey to understand the whys and hows of poverty alleviation approaches that work and those that don’t.

According to the authors, walking alongside broken people is long-term. Poverty alleviation looks like process instead of product (78). It includes “spending of self” (53): commitment of time, energy, and resources. It means a setting aside of pride because “[w]e are all broken, just in different ways” (61). In fact, acknowledging and owning our own poverty is crucial to helping others. Otherwise, “our work with low-income people is likely to do more harm than good” (61).

Helping means opening ourselves to failing. It means making ourselves humble before those whom we assume know less than we do. It means discerning which kind of help fits the situation (99-100) and tapping into the resources that are present—referred to as “asset-based community development” (119-120). Truly helping also means presenting the gospel because “without such a presentation, it is not possible for people to be personally transformed in all their relationships” (76).

Often poverty alleviation books and lectures have left me feeling more helpless than before. As if every step I make toward helping will actually hurt.

At the beginning of each When Helping Hurts chapter, the “Initial Thoughts” section prompts the reader to analyze his worldview or attempt to problem-solve. These sections kept me as a reader engaged in the material, wondering if my worldview was on-target or askew or if my attempt to problem-solve was helpful or detrimental.

Unlike the first edition (2009), the second edition (2012) of When Helping Hurts includes a section to help the reader implement the book’s principles. Clear, practical advice paired with logical visuals assures the reader that helping without hurting is possible after all.

Step by step, the authors take the reader on a journey to understand what long-term helping looks like. They address the specifics, answering questions such as:

When is it appropriate to help someone “feel the burden of their current situation… and be triggered to … improve their lives” (208)? Do we involve others in the situation? What kind of goals do we need to set with those we are trying to help? Do we need to know everything before we start “helping”? How much effort should we expect from those we are helping?

These questions are important, but the highest hurdle remains our unwillingness to invest ourselves long-term. Rather than cast a broad net of blame for the lingering poverty in the world, the authors point a finger at me and you:  

Typically, the biggest challenge that ministries face is an insufficient number of people who are willing to invest the time and energy that it takes to walk through time with a needy individual or family. Finding armies of people to volunteer one Saturday per year to paint dilapidated houses is easy. Finding people to love the people, day in and day out, who live in those houses is extremely difficult (210).

Are we ready to do what it takes to truly help without hurting? Are we ready to “spend ourselves” (53)?

unknown profile Trish Kauffman lives in Western Europe and works with immigrants. Because of the nature of her work, she has chosen a pseudonym. She is energized by open conversations that point to Jesus. She also loves being part of a community, reading, touring out-of-the-way places, and organizing (as long as some spontaneity is in the mix). She used to think she liked language-learning until she started learning Arabic. For her, the hardest part about living away from home is leaving behind family.

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