Catalyst Lab: Don't Pity the Poor
Jessica Jackley no longer feels badly for the poor. She's doing something better.

Jessica Jackley was in first grade when she became aware of how the poor were being presented to her. She saw ads for parachurch organizations and appeals for missions groups that featured photographs of impoverished children with distended bellies and flies in the eyes.

She realized even at that young age that those pictures made her feel bad, and they caused her and her friends to give money just to make the bad feelings go away.

As she got older and had more awareness of the pervasiveness of poverty, and gained firsthand experience working with the poor, she realized that appeals that provoke pity and guilt were not pointing in the right direction. To get people to respond simply to ease their own discomfort was actually counterproductive. Such appeals don't help the poor long-term; these appeals eventually just make people calloused and cynical or at the least able to view such presentations with very little impact.

Jackley learned that what the poor really needed was not pity, but something much more useful.

The poor are often very intelligent and resourceful people. Many have entrepreneurial skills. They don't need handouts–they need resources, often relatively modest resources, to allow them to develop a business to sustain themselves.

So Jackley became the cofounder of, the amazingly effective network of person-to-person microloans. A loan of as little as $25 can make a huge difference to a Sudanese goat herder, or a Peruvian seamstress.

We don't need presentations that communicate only despair. Jackley points to the many stories of hope that emerge from the right kind of assistance.

What the poor need is not our pity but our partnership.

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October 07, 2009

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments


October 12, 2009  12:18pm

"About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. This is one person every three and a half seconds...Unfortunately, it is children who die most often." ( Like Mother Teresa's work with the poor, Jessica Jackley's person-to-person microloans network is a drop in the ocean. Mother Teresa's rejoinder to the critical secular world is soul-stirring: God didn't expect her to be successful, but only to be faithful. That chimes in with the Bible's exhortation: "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things..." (Mt 25:23). Jesus' words drive home the crowning message: "The poor you will always have with you..." (Mt 26:11) Tristram Stuart, author of a new book on food waste and a contributor to a special food waste issue of the Food Ethics Council's magazine, said: "There are nearly a billion malnourished people in the world, but all of them could be lifted out of hunger with less than a quarter of the food wasted in Europe and North America." A mirage. A castle in the air. A pipedream. Why? Because our world is devoid of empathy. Daniel Goleman in his book "Emotional Intelligence" wrote: "'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee' is one of the most famous lines in English Literature. John Donne's sentiment speaks to the heart of the link between empathy and caring: another's pain is one's own. To feel with another [i.e. 'pity' which is defined as 'moved with compassion'] is to care....the more empathic people are, the more they favor the moral principle that resources should be allocated according to people's need." Antipathy is the opposite of empathy; it evokes self-justifying sneer like, "The poor are lazy." The Parable of the Good Samaritan has a pertinent passage: "...a he came upon the man, was MOVED WITH COMPASSION." (Lk 10:33)(Emphasis mine) Martin Luther King said: "To begin with, we must be the good Samaritan to those who have fallen along the way. This, however, is only the beginning. Then someday we will necessarily have to realize that the road to Jericho must be made in such a way that men and women are not constantly beaten and robbed while they are going along the paths of life." How about modifying the title into, say, "Don't JUST pity the poor" or maybe, "The Poor: Beyond Pity"?

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Ken Davis

October 10, 2009  6:19am

Real help for the poor will happen when they stop being "them" and truly become one of "us". Why is the church still talking about helping the poor as an outside group? Shouldn't they be part of our churches by now? We need to address why poor people are not part of the warp and woof of the church in North America.

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October 08, 2009  10:42am

KIVA does awesome work! Much of the learnings could be extended to the US but our country tends to have an excessive regulatory and entry cost barrier to starting a small or micro business. Now that being said, there are ample opportunities for the Church to put the poor to work and to have massive impact in the communities they are located in. We can provide prepared meals that are low cost by selling the meals at cost and allowing folks who are poor to work and own the coop. We can focus on housing development, by employing the poor to retrofit or build housing that is priced for the working poor. These are just a few examples of how the church can engage in the marketplace to pull people out of poverty or at the least to allow them dignity by allowing ownership in their work.

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Marshall Shelley

October 08, 2009  8:50am

Yes, Jessica said Kiva is now making loans to the poor in the USA. For example, a home daycare provider in San Francisco. So the repaid loan from a Sudanese microbusiness can now help the underresourced in America. Amazing. And, I think, the way things are supposed to work.

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Prophetik Soul

October 08, 2009  7:38am

BTW, I support what Jessica Jackley is doing.

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Prophetik Soul

October 08, 2009  7:37am

Does her ideas of the poor extend to the American poor? In my experience growing up poor, I have found there to be a disconnect between American evangelicals and the American poor. Although poverty in third countries is worse than in the U.S., American poverty still deserves a consistent response from American Christians. My experience has been that many American Christians see the American poor as irresponsible and lazy.

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October 07, 2009  8:20pm

This came up in a related way today, as we talked about late fees for afterschool care. Fining parents, say, $1.00 a minute for picking their kids up late actually increases the number of parents who are late. Why? Because, just as with the poor in TV commercials, it's very easy to relieve our guilt by spending a few bucks. Versus actually changing our behavior. If I drop my spare change into the container at the convenience store counter that's collecting for a kid's cancer treatment, I don't have to think about our nation's horrible infant mortality rates.

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