Solve Poverty? First Understand the Poor
How well do nonprofits understand the poor they’re trying to help? And how well do they preserve dignity while offering that help? These issues are front and center in a recent article by Martin Morse Wooster in Philanthropy Daily.
In “Back Row America: The Fascinating Work of Chris Arnade,” Wooster makes a simple point: to combat poverty, we need to understand the poor. “[F]ar too many writers show up in a low-income area determined not to write about what they see, but in finding people who will confirm their existing prejudices.”
Specifically, Wooster references the work of Chris Arnade, whose book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, comes out this June. Arnade leans socialist but recently had an excerpt from his book published in the conservative journal First Things.
Front Row Meets Back Row
Arnade worked as an up-and-coming bond trader with Citibank in New York City before he took an early buyout and decided he wanted to spend more time with the poor. While with Citibank, in his off hours, Arnade started taking long walks. Increasingly, he chose to spend time in the “dodgy” neighborhoods he’d been warned to avoid.
Arnade made an interesting observation of the poor—back row America, as he calls them. They often spend their days wrangling with bureaucracies: welfare offices, courts, prisons, emergency rooms. Each of these offices tangle them up with an hour of forms to fill and mind-numbing rules to follow.
Understand the Poor?
Where can the poor go to escape these webs of tangle? The answer might come as a surprise.
Arnade says, “For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches.”
These are storefront churches which have rules of their own (e.g., those who come will hear a sermon). But no one there looks down on the poor because “[t]he churches understand the streets, understand everyone is a sinner and everyone fails.”
In contrast, he observes that “…the cold, secular world of the well-intentioned” maintains a distance from the poor without offering real help.
Do we want to solve poverty? Write the last check to end poverty? Arnade’s work indicates it won’t happen through more social programs with all their rules, metrics, and entanglements.
No, perhaps more useful philanthropy will be to support little churches like these, which are on the ground and asking questions that can’t fully be answered by anything other than faith.
I appreciate the close of Wooster’s thoughtful article:
“Arnade’s work should lead philanthropists to ask: what are the storefront churches that are doing good work in our city? And what are we doing to help them?”
Photo by Simon Shim on Unsplash