food insecurity

i think a lot about food.  i think about what i want to eat, when to eat, who to eat with..  but i don’t think about whether or not i’ll actually get to eat that day.  except for this one time…


the summer between my junior and senior years of college, i spent a month in london.  i lived in hostels, found a temp job, and got to meet all sorts of cool people.

i also experienced food insecurity for the first time in my life.

see, i hadn’t planned well.  i found a job early on but didn’t realize i wouldn’t get my first paycheck until weeks later.  i remember one night i was in the grocery store with the cash i had left…  my plan was to buy a loaf of bread and a jar of nutella to last me for the week.  sadly, i was a couple pence short.  i scoured the floors for any dropped coins but couldn’t find anything!  so with much reluctance (and probably a few tears), i put back the jar of nutella and just bought the loaf of bread.


it’s crazy to me that in a world with such a ridiculous amount of wealth and resources, people are going to bed hungry.  nearly 49 million americans live with food insecurity (i.e. they lack consistent access to adequate food []), and 1 in 8 people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment [].

i don’t know about you, but i have a really hard time concentrating when i’m hungry.  i get lethargic, my mind wanders, and all i can think about is when i’ll be able to eat.  that summer in london, my work definitely suffered – all i remember about that job was the free tea that warmed and filled my stomach!

all of this helps me to see that those living in hunger are living in a poverty trap (i.e. any self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist -wikipedia).  if someone can’t afford food, how can he concentrate enough at school or at work to be able to lift himself up out of his situation?  sure, it’s doable but i’d imagine it’s exponentially harder than for those who’ve had enough to eat.

i don’t have the answers, but i do have a few basic thoughts.

  • understanding.  understanding the poor is the first step to designing effective solutions (see my post on the god-complex: and my book review of poor economics:  empowering the poor is a natural and essential next step.
  • food banks.  i think food banks are part of the solution, but more needs to be done; handouts can be helpful (and are often necessary) for the short-term but won’t help (and may in fact hurt) in the long-term (see my post on relief vs rehab vs development:
  • the non-poor.  while we need to be aware of the god-complex issue, the non-poor do indeed have much to offer: skills-training and business expertise for the poor (i.e. development vs relief), donations and professional expertise for nonprofits and social enterprises, etc.  (how can we better mobilize the non-poor to help??)

there are also some interesting insights in the articles below.  anyone else have any ideas?

P.S. lest you feel sorry for me, by the end of that week in london (and after a few accidental bites of moldy bread), i had caved.  i pulled out the credit card my parents had given me, and my brief experience with food insecurity was over.


related articles:


alleviating unemployment here in the states..

.. what about bringing back manufacturing..  any thoughts?

‘Made in USA’ fuels new manufacturing hubs in apparel

Heesun WeeCNBC

Sep. 23, 2013 at 2:57 PM ET

Anton Babich makes custom dress shirts for his emerging company, Anton Alexander, based in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Sean Quillen
Anton Babich makes custom dress shirts for his emerging company, Anton Alexander, based in Fort Wayne, Ind.

New York City, including Manhattan’s historic Garment District, is commonly known as a fashion capital of the world. But glimmers of new and revived apparel hubs are emerging in smaller cities, fueled by rising production costs overseas and a growing appetite for “Made in USA” goods.

More small merchants and independent designers have been calculating the costs associated with international manufacturing and are opting to make clothing domestically. Think Raleigh, N.C., which boasts a rich textile history. Or consider Fort Wayne, Ind., in the Rust Belt.

These fashion manufacturing hubs are small compared to New York and Los Angeles. But armed with laptops and websites, entrepreneurs with a passion for domestic manufacturing are rolling the dice in smaller cities. They’re trying to resuscitate American-made apparel—and to recover lost American manufacturing jobs.

While small hubs’ track record in creating apparel-related jobs is nascent and small scale for now, the potential is enormous. NYC’s Garment District alone employs 7,100 workers and contributes an estimated $2 billion annually to the city’s economy.

‘It’s an entire skill set that’s gone.’

Part of the regional efforts include training the next generation of apparel makers. American garment professionals—sewers, cutters, pattern makers and more—are in their 70s and 80s, with few younger apprentices learning the highly specialized trade from veterans. As apparel manufacturing has moved overseas, much more has been lost than jobs.

Christel Ellsberg is an expert tailor and pattern maker for Raleigh Denim, which makes American-made jeans.

Victor Lytvinenko
Christel Ellsberg is an expert tailor and pattern maker for Raleigh Denim, which makes American-made jeans.

“It’s an entire skill set that’s gone,” said Christel Ellsberg, 79, based in Raleigh. She’s a custom tailor and pattern maker, who learned her trade in Germany before immigrating to Canada and the U.S. She can draft a pattern by eyeballing a piece of clothing. No need to tear it apart and trace the outlines of the cut pieces. “That’s called copying,” she said.

Ellsberg works for Raleigh Denim, a 30-staff small business that makes American-made denim. And most of their fabric is produced by Cone Denim mills in Greensboro.

But Raleigh Denim and American-made apparel companies are unique. More than 97 percent of apparel and 98 percent of shoes sold in the U.S. are made overseas, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. During the 1960s, roughly 95 percent of apparel worn in the U.S. was made domestically.

“No one is predicting that we’re going back to employment levels in manufacturing that we had 30 years ago,” said David Trumbull, a consultant and expert in textiles and U.S. manufacturing. America has lost nearly a third of its manufacturing jobs during the past decade. “But ‘Made in USA’ is a trend we have seen and it has continued,” Trumbull said.

Turns out the Great Recession, especially deep and prolonged, has spooked Americans. It’s prompted consumers to start doing the math that foreign-made goods equals lost American jobs. “The recession was a big whack in the head for the country,” said Bob Hinty, a manufacturer based in Fort Wayne.

(Read moreWelcome home: ‘Made in USA’ on the rise)

Fashionable Fort Wayne

Hinty runs two plants, employing 150 workers. They craft everything from girly quilted bags to rugged, portable bunk beds used by U.S. soldiers.

When a bag key customer moved operations to China in 2008, “we didn’t just roll up and go in a corner,” he recalled. Hinty paired up with a smaller bag maker, cinda b, which was determined to stay on U.S. soil.

“I wanted to be an American-made company and I was pulling my hair out,” said Cinda Boomershine, founder of cinda b. Then Boomershine found Hinty. “It takes a different skill set, different machines,” she said.

It’s no secret making apparel in the U.S. can be costly. American wages are higher than those in Asia or Mexico. But select American manufacturers are staying cost competitive in part through a strategy called smart manufacturing. That means streamlining production without sacrificing quality.

Cinda b bags, for example, are functional but not clunky. “Eight zipper pockets in a purse? That throws us out of a price range,” Boomershine said. “We have to be very strategic in how we add features to a bag.” Her totes and bags start from around $44.

Other apparel entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne include Anton Babich of Anton Alexander.

After raising money through crowdfunding, Babich launched earlier this year. He makes designer men’s shirts, including custom pieces. As a merchant with small product batches, he recognized outsourcing to China wasn’t feasible. There are brokers to deal with, tariffs, high shipping costs, minimum order requirements, weeks for orders to arrive and spotty quality. “I found a whole lot of issues,” Babich said. 

In fact, the cost-competitive case for “Made in China” is changing amid the early stages of a global manufacturing shift. Factors including rising labor costs are eroding China’s cost advantage as an export platform for North America. Mexico, meanwhile, is rebounding as a manufacturing base, and wages there will be significantly lower than in China, according to a Boston Consulting Group report.

(Read moreMore consumers buying American)

North Carolina’s apparel legacy

Commitment to quality manufacturing domestically persuaded Raleigh Denim co-founders Sarah and Victor Lytvinenko to open a small American-made denim company.

With old sewing machines packed in a car, the couple drove up the nearby Blue Ridge mountains and started asking older apparel professionals for advice on the machines they had acquired. How do you fix these machines? What are the best denim sewing, construction methods? The region has a textile history dating to the 1800s, when entrepreneurs took advantage of abundant cotton fields.

“We found people that used to work in the old Levi Strauss factory,” said Victor Lytvinenko. Raleigh Denim began selling jeans in 2007 and now employs 30 people in a downtown Raleigh factory. Its premium jeans sell for between $195 to $325 a pair.

Ellsberg is one of the Lytvinenkos’ employees and part of Raleigh’s renewed textile tradition. North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles is training independent fabric designers.

And whether it’s fabric design or pattern making, the point is to preserve skills and the value of making a quality product with your hands. Even in her 70s, Ellsberg is never idle. She has a small online business, Ilkare, which makes dog coats.

“My grandmother taught me how to sew. I was always interested in working with my hands,” Ellsberg said. “You still have to have the basics.”

By CNBC’s Heesun Wee. Followher on Twitter @heesunwee

© 2013 CNBC LLC. All Rights Reserved

excerpts from “Road deaths, cancer and diabetes becoming Africa’s hidden epidemics” by Oliver Balch

“accidents on the road are expected to become the biggest killer of children between five and 15 by 2015, outstripping malaria and Aids.”

‘The poorest communities often live alongside the fastest roads, their children may need to negotiate the most dangerous routes to school and they may have poorer outcomes from injuries, due to limited access to post-crash emergency healthcare,’ the report says.

Aside from the obvious distress caused by accidents, sub-Saharan Africa’s high-risk roads have a significant economic impact too. Crashes are estimated to cost African countries between 1 and 3% of their GNP each year, the report finds.”


“The shift towards urbanisation is a case in point. City residents typically take less exercise, triggering diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Rising incomes are driving demand for processed foods that are higher in sugar, fat and salt. The same factors result in increased car use and ownership, and more traffic accidents.

Alcohol consumption links the two. Though seven in 10 adults abstain from drinking alcohol in sub-Saharan Africa, those who do have the highest prevalence of heavy episodic drinking globally, the report says.”

excerpts from “Listening Well: West Africans Speak on Poverty and the Global Church”

What are the causes of poverty?

“There are many causes – ignorance, idol worship, slavery and neo-colonialist structures, political systems – it all creates poverty. But it is also partially created by the approaches of many of the first missionaries and poverty alleviation workers: they created dependency, which cements poverty.”

– Togolese Leaders


What can the foreign church do to better partner with you?

“They should try to appreciate the African culture – identify the positive aspects of African culture, and respect African churches and people as being created in the image of God.”

– Togolese Leaders


“They could support us through training in education, health, and theology in the context of specified partnerships that respect each other.”

– Malian and Togolese Leaders


“They should ask our opinions before coming to help. Don’t just plan in your offices and then come here and do it to us . . . they sometimes think the money is more valuable than human beings. The African church can think and reflect on what we need. Foreign countries try to think for us!”

– Malian and Togolese Leaders 

i hate seeing panhandlers (and the complexity of poverty)

Confession: I hate seeing panhandlers.  All these conflicting thoughts immediately start flooding through my mind when I see them: “I want to help… I don’t want them to waste my money… I shouldn’t be judging them… They look healthy enough to get a job…  I’d rather use my money to help the poor on a larger scale…”  (that last thought doesn’t sound quite like that when I’m sitting there in my car, but you get the idea :P)  It’s even worse when they try to do something in exchange for money – e.g. squeegeeing my windshield (it was cleaner BEFORE you touched it!!), ushering me into a spot on the street (I found it before you came running up, stop trying to take credit!!)…
Then I end up getting frustrated at myself, at them… and when I finally get away I feel relieved, guilty for feeling relieved, and guilty for not helping out.
Argh, I hate seeing panhandlers.  But not because of them… because of me.
I hate my inaction.  I hate my judgmentalism.  I hate that I can’t singlehandedly wipe out poverty (I know, I know..  didn’t you read the post about my god-complex? :P)
Maybe in part to assuage my guilt, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to actually “help the poor on a larger scale” (did I just quote myself in my own blog?  Yes, yes I did).  The annoying thing is that it’s really complicated.  (Disclaimer: I’m simplifying things big-time in the next couple of statements.)
  • Food banks, welfare, and Medicaid help with hunger, unemployment, and medical expenses… but they can also cause dependency. [1]
  • Holiday gift drives and school supply drives provide what could not have been purchased otherwise… but they can also disempower those they’re trying to help. [2]
Just a couple examples, but you get the point.  Obviously, each of these initiatives has pros and an appropriate time and place.  But it’s important to look at both sides – especially if what we’re doing could be causing more harm than good! [3]
One of the most important distinctions to make is whether those we are trying to help need relief, rehabilitation, or development.  Relief is immediate care in response to an urgent emergency or crisis.  Rehabilitation “begins as soon as the bleeding stops” and helps to restore people to their pre-crisis conditions.  Development is in it for the long haul, helping communities pursue ongoing change and improvement.  Doing the wrong thing in a given situation might help in the short-term but ultimately hurt in the long-term.  
Here are a few things to consider when determining what’s most appropriate (from When Helping Hurts, chapter 4):
1) Is it really a crisis?  If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?  If not, relief is not appropriate.
2) To what degree was the individual personally responsible for the situation?  If there was some personal responsibility involved, ensure the appropriate lessons are being learned.
3) Can the person help himself?  If so, a pure handout undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities.
4) Has this person already been receiving relief from you or others?  If she’s been receiving “emergency” relief from multiple sources, the most loving thing to do might be to withhold further relief, explain why, and offer to walk alongside her in finding a long-term solution.
(I specifically refer to churches in the next section, but it could apply to any group that wants to help.)
The really cool thing about churches is that they can address problems on all ends of this spectrum.  First, we know that churches are called to help (check out my last post).  Second, you’re in a space where you’ll probably be for some time, so you have the unique potential to walk with a person from relief to rehab and all the way through development.  Third, you’re probably surrounded by nonprofits who know how to help – and they need volunteers!  A nonprofit often has the tools to do just relief or just rehab, but a church can “adopt” a community or specific set of individuals and then work with multiple organizations to ensure that help is provided in the right way at the right time.
I’m gonna end with the same quote from my last post:
“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers.  Let those numbers sink in for just a minute.  Think of the possibilities…  Ponder the potential to change the world if all these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (The Hole in Our Gospel, chapter 22)
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all work together to “help the poor on a larger scale”? 🙂
P.S.  Oh, so what about panhandlers?  These guys say it better than I ever could:
[2] “[After] several years, Pastor Johnson noticed that he was struggling to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts to the hosing project.  At the congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning, but it was difficult to get a clear answer.  Finally, one member spoke up: ‘Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out.  We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves.  They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out.  Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys?  The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks.  They don’t deserve our help.’   In reality, there was a different reason that there were few men in the apartments when the toys were delivered.  Oftentimes, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments.  For a host of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs.  This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs.  The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy.  In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, [the church] increased these fathers’ poverty of being.  Ironically, this likely made the fathers even less able to apply for a job, thereby exacerbating the very material poverty that [the church] was trying to solve!  In addition to hurting the residents of the housing project, the [church members] hurt themselves.  At first the members developed a subtle sense of pride that they were helping the project residents through their acts of kindness.  Later, when they observed the residents’ failure to improve their situations, the members’ disdain for them increased.  What is often called ‘compassion fatigue’ then set in as the members became less willing to help the low-income residents…  Furthermore, the poverty of community increased for everyone involved, as the gulf between the church members and the housing project residents actually increased as a result of this project. (When Helping Hurts, chapter 2)

What if Christians were more like Jesus?

(main sources: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, and the book of Matthew in the Bible)

Let’s start with a quote from When Helping Hurts:

“When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus!” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.40)

Sadly, the following is what people actually see:

In 2006, Barna researchers found that only 16 percent of “individuals who had no strong religious convictions themselves… had a good impression of Christianity. Worse, only 3 percent [had] a favorable impression of ‘evangelicals,’ with 49 percent saying they [had] a bad impression! One interviewee put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe’… The data also suggests that [Christians] have become defined by those things we are against rather than those we are for. We’re seen to be against homosexuality and gay marriage, against pornography and sexual promiscuity, against alcohol and drug use, abortion, divorce, Islam, evolution… even against those who believe that global warming is a threat.'” (Stearns, p.227, 229)

I wonder what survey respondents in Jesus’ day would say about him

Actually, the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to kill him were probably more likely to be viewed the way Christians are today. They were the ones who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, tithing, fasting, etc. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, not making his disciples fast, and hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collecting swindlers. True, he probably did want to convert everyone. (I mean, if Christians really believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus, it would be hypocritical not to share about it.) But for Jesus, the thousands of people listening to him each day were there of their own volition and actually wanted to hear him speak.

Maybe Christians would be better received if we lived and communicated more like Jesus did:

“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character – His love, justice, and mercy – through our words, actions, and behavior.” (Stearns, p.3)

Let’s break this down.

1. What if we communicated God’s character with only our words?

:: Mississippi in the 1960s ::

“Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation… Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…. terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults…

“While Reverend [Charles] Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched… What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, ‘I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy [and so many others who asked for healing]?” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.35-37)

No WAY..

As James said in the Bible, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

What has happened to the church?

:: The Great Reversal ::

“The idea that the church should be on the front lines of ministry to the poor is not a new concept in the North American context. As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the ‘Great Reversal’ in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.43-44)

Of course, in response to the Great Reversal, we shouldn’t just shift to dealing solely with social problems without teaching truth.

2. What if we communicated God’s character with only actions?

:: Bolivia ::

“A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia’s Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers’ incomes was far less than hoped because of the farmers’ deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama’s favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers’ income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers’ material poverty. (Corbett & Fikkert, p.80)

:: Rwanda ::

“Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life… Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen?… For most Rwandans, Christianity was ‘little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare… The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.45-46)

Bolivians and Rwandans have years of rich culture and history that have consciously and subconsciously contributed to their belief systems, just as years of culture and history have influenced our North American understanding of the gospel (sometimes resulting in beliefs that may not be completely Biblical, as evidenced by the Great Reversal).  Culture and history should definitely be taken into consideration when trying to figure out how to communicate and understand the truth of who Jesus is most fully (i.e. contextualization), but great care should be taken in determining what the unadulterated truth of the gospel actually is.

That being said, clearly communicating truth is essential and universal. As Corbett & Fikkert explain, “[teaching] the values of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ without teaching about the Creator of those values and about the transforming power of Jesus Christ is like giving out penicillin without ever explaining the source of the penicillin’s power.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.91-92). Yes, Jesus healed and hung out with people – but that’s not all he did. He also preached a ton of truth about who he was and his role in the fulfillment of Jewish law – and that was absolutely necessary for people to understand the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s go one step further.

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett & Fikkert write that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth… is an affront to the gospel… [What] is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people – as important as that is – but [also] the very authenticity of the church’s witness” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.16)

We’ve already seen that the church’s witness is pretty bad right now, and it’s not doing us or God any good if we as Christians – people who are supposed to be Christ’s ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy – are not doing anything about this coexistence of poverty and incredible wealth.

“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers. Let those numbers sink in for just a minute. Think of the possibilities. Think of the resources. Ponder the potential to change the world if all of these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (Stearns, p.237)

More on this next time… 🙂

the danger of the god-complex

[What I’ve learned from the book When Helping Hurts (Part 1 of ?)]

Blogs seem to require a certain amount of self-disclosure..  So here’s mine: I was fired from my first job.  Not laid off.  Not let go during a company-wide workforce reduction.  I was just fired.  Blame it on the immaturity of youth, the college lifestyle I was still living, or my irrationally powerful FOMO [1] that makes even the thought of falling asleep before anyone else unbearable because I might be missing out on something… Whatever the reason(s), I could NOT get myself to wake up and get to work on time.  (hm.. not much has changed, huh?..)

But in all seriousness, getting fired was an incredibly humbling experience.  I’d been told for years that I was smart, talented, capable…  how in the world did I get fired??  Talk about a blow to my ego.

I could be homeless…

No joke – one thought that kept plaguing me during that time was how easy it would be to become homeless.  If I hadn’t had such a supportive safety net of friends and family willing to help me out (and even periodically pay my credit card bills – thanks SO much, meimers!!), I don’t know what would have happened.  Would I have been willing to push pride aside and get a job that was “beneath” me and my education level in order to pay my bills?  Would I have been willing to forgo fun and friends to work whatever hours necessary to feed and house myself?  Sadly, I’m not sure I would have based on my immaturity and FOMO levels at the time :/

…but I had safety nets.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I never had to experience the consequences of my poor life decisions.  I had friends and family who were supportive, still thought I was smart and capable, and continued to encourage me despite my lapses in maturity/judgment/discipline/etc…

I’m pretty sure I’d be in a very different place now if not for those safety nets… 

It’s interesting how we end up in situations that have nothing to do with how inherently awesome (or not) we are.  I can’t take any credit for the fact that my parents studied hard, took a huge risk in moving to the US by themselves, and worked for years to make a good life for us…  And yet I’ve definitely benefited.

The problem is I DO take credit for it.  There’s at least a part of me that thinks I’m somehow “better” because I grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with well-educated, successful parents.  On its own, this thought may not be a bad thing.  No one really gets hurt if I think I’m awesome…  until I decide I want to help others.

Wait, what?…  Just hear me out.

If I think I’m better than the materially less fortunate, what happens when I want to help?  “How can I help you?”  On the surface, it’s an innocent – perhaps even loving – question.  Dig a little deeper, and you can sense a bit of a god-complex.  I live in a nice place, I’ve got it (mostly) together financially… so I’M in a position to help YOU.

If you’ve somehow been able to follow my line of thinking, you know it’s not necessarily true.

The person I want to help was born into a situation she had no control over.  She might be smart and capable, but maybe a temporary lapse in judgment without the safety nets I had has put her in a bad situation.  

If I only focus on her bad situation and how she needs help, I could totally miss out.  SHE might have some insights into something I’M going through.  There’s an even better chance that she has valuable insights into how to help her own community – after all, she lives there!

Let’s work together.

That’s why I love the recent movement towards collaboration in alleviating poverty. [2] Organizations are realizing the benefit of working WITH communities to determine the best strategies for empowerment and transformation.  Instead of coming in with ideas of how WE think things should be done, we’re coming alongside individuals to learn about their actual specific needs as well as what THEY have to offer. [3] Less “what can I do for you”, and more “how can we make this better TOGETHER”.

It’s about empowering, affirming, and working together.  Kind of like what my friends and family did for me back in the day 🙂

[1] fear of missing out

[3] Asset mapping/inventorying “uses individual or group-based interviews to catalogue the assets in a particular community… Once local assets are ‘mapped’… community residents and facilitators can identify strengths, make linkages between existing individuals and groups, and determine the best ways to leverage these assets to improve the community and solve problems.” (When Helping Hurts)



Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert talk about this more eloquently in Chapter 5 of their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.  Here are a few excerpts:

“starting with a focus on needs amounts to starting a relationship with low-income people by asking them, ‘What is wrong with you?  How can I fix you?’… Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.”

“’asset-based community development’… puts the emphasis on what materially poor people already have and asks them to consider from the outset, ‘What is right with you?  What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors?  How can the individuals and organizations in your community work together to improve your community?’… Indeed, the very nature of the question – What gifts do you have? – affirms people’s dignity”

“Of course, as the process proceeds, it may become clear that the individual or community does not have sufficient assets to address all of the needs.  If and when such needs become pressing, it is then appropriate to bring in outside resources to augment local assets… gauging the appropriate magnitude and timing… takes an enormous amount of wisdom.”

(more on what this could look like in future posts…)