What is the most valuable resource we can give to the poor? TIME! Now let me provide some context for that answer. For years, I have watched tangible resources, such as money and “stuff,” being given to people with the hope that it could lift them out of poverty. Having grown up in generational poverty myself, I watched my family beg, borrow, and steal their way to survival. But what was interesting was that while we didn’t go hungry and there was typically stable employment, something was still very much missing…
What was missing was that my family couldn’t navigate this world. They were gripped with mental health and addiction, struggled with relationships, were not educated, and overall stumbled their way through life. What I have recognized over the years is that they did not struggle with people giving them resources; they struggled with people giving them TIME. At the simplest level, it was because my family was “different” than most. They looked and acted differently and valued different things. Why is it so hard to spend our TIME in relationships with people who are different than us?
Paul says in Ephesians 5:15–17: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” These days are evil; people can struggle. Are we seeking the Lord and making the best use of our TIME in what serving others looks like?
THE WAR ON POVERTY IN THE UNITED STATES
With the United States being a country of abundance and wealth, President Johnson stated in 1964 that we would be waging a war on poverty. In my opinion, that began our modern-day way of helping others.
Looking at statistics, I question if we are missing something. Did you know that the government today offers around 100 programs to address poverty? Those programs are costing roughly $1.5T, with the bulk of that amount going toward health coverage ($900B) and to other programs such as food programs, family programs, etc., that make up the balance. This does not even include the good work being done at the local level through non-profit organizations. Now, did you know that the poverty rate today as measured through income is around 12%, or 38M people? In 1964, the rate was 19% and 36M people. Read what you want into that data point; it’s just data and not the point… The point is, there are still many people struggling with poverty today.
HOW DOES THE “SYSTEM” WORK?
I would contend this: programs that give people things without the participation of the individuals that seek help will hold them hostage to their situation and will diminish the desire of the individual to make a change on their own.
Robert Lupton, the author of the book Toxic Charity, stated that if you give someone something five times without them participating, you will create dependency. I fear that well-intended programs have created that precise dependency we are trying to eliminate. So what is missing?
First, let’s distinguish between “Relief” and “Development.” There are many programs that are necessary in our society. Relief organizations are those that respond to emergencies when something like a tornado devastates an area. They bring people, supplies, and resources to meet basic needs. This is critical in our society. On the other end of the spectrum are development organizations. They are the ones working hand-in-hand with the people they serve, helping them to move into a better place in life. For the purposes of this paper, let’s focus on “Development.”
As an example of serving, let’s say someone comes to a food shelf to get food. Why? Because people need food to survive—a basic need met. Do we ask ourselves the questions: What is preventing this person from getting food from somewhere other than a food shelf? What talents do they have that would allow them to meet this need? Are they capable of earning an income? How many people are in their family? Lastly, what’s their health like, and does it affect other areas of their life? Let’s face it, giving them food is the quick and easy thing to do; getting at the root of the other questions becomes much more difficult and requires creativity to find solutions. But mostly, it requires TIME.
WHY ARE WE STUCK?
I spent 20 years in manufacturing. What I enjoyed about that type of work was that each day, you could see if your improvement work was making a difference—immediate feedback. We measured it, we coached to it, and we had a singular focus on process improvement. We could make tweaks each day that didn’t cost much and were a quick fix; unfortunately, those tweaks didn’t always stick long-term, so we continued to go back and try another quick fix. What we needed was a long-term perspective, and we needed investment. We are living in a society that loves a quick fix. If I can get it fixed now, I can move on to something else…
There is no quick fix to poverty. My mom was the second generation of being on the “system.” I now have family members that are fifth and even sixth generation. How do you retrain multiple generations? Let’s add on to this: we have a system that creates dependency, and I will contend that we’ve all bought into the system. We see a family that struggles with food, and we direct them to food stamps and food shelves. We give to food shelves because we don’t want to see people hungry. We are all playing some part in perpetuating this dependency. What would happen if we took the TIME to share a meal together and begin a relationship for a deeper understanding of the questions we asked earlier?
We’ve also come to a point where solutions must fit our personal worldview. In the U.S., our answer is, “If that person just got a job … if they would just quit smoking … if they would only quit drinking,” but it is just not that easy. Let’s look at an example. I have a perspective that recognizes that if I had an alcohol problem, it could affect my job, and if my job is affected, my family will be affected, and so on. Someone gripped with addiction does not see the world that way, and they are singularly focused on how they feel when they consume alcohol. How can we solve that problem? TIME! People struggling with alcohol often lack healthy relationships. They’ve generally burned out the people who are closest to them, and the people at a distance won’t come near. They live in isolation and without hope that things can be better.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
One thing God continues to teach me is that everything I have is His. I talk to many Christians who share the same belief, so they do things like tithing and are generous with their money. I’ve also noticed that many of my Christian friends don’t find TIME to serve or have relationships with people different than them because they’re just too busy. What if we treated TIME like it belongs to Jesus? How would He have spent His TIME in today’s world? My challenge is to think about how you spend your TIME by asking these three questions:
- How much TIME do you spend seeking to understand the differences in the people you desire to help?
Did you know that economic social classes are all motivated by something different? Someone in poverty is motivated by “relationships.” Why? Because they need relationships to navigate the world. For example, I need to have a relationship with my cousin because she has a car and gets me to work. If her car quits working, we’re both affected. I rely on her to keep my resources stable. Someone in the middle class is motivated by “achievement” because it helps them build resources. For example, I need good grades in high school so I can go to college; I need to go to college so I can get a good job; I need a good job so I can raise my family; and it continues to build from there. Looking at these two perspectives, if someone in poverty gets into a conversation with someone in the middle class, there could be tension. For example, in poverty, I want to build a relationship; however, the person I’m interacting with, in the middle class, wants me to quit smoking. Quitting smoking won’t happen without the relationship… Our middle-class culture has created so many marketing programs and advertisements to quit smoking, and often, they won’t reach the people in poverty because they struggle connecting the impact. We can’t close that gap without relationships, and relationships take TIME.
- Do you spend TIME with people who are different than you?
Having grown up with a poverty mindset, my immediate family was always around extended family. There were very few people outside of that circle. My extended family struggled with work, addiction, mental health, and a multitude of other things. They were us, and we were them. We didn’t know there were different ways to “do life” and weren’t motivated to change. I often wonder how things could have been different if we had “outsiders” in our lives. The problem was that our differences were often what separated us from others, rather than bringing us together.
In 2012, my mother fell very ill, and we had to move her out of her home. I spent several days cleaning up the home she lived in and was often the only one at the house. One day, a neighbor stopped by, introduced himself, and asked me what was going on. I let him know my family was moving due to this health issue. As we were wrapping up the conversation, he thanked me for sharing and said, “I never really knew your family; they weren’t the type of people I’d hang around.” Could that have looked different if we thought about TIME differently?
- Are you sowing seeds with the long-term (TIME) in mind?
I continue to be amazed when I come across someone with whom I interacted years ago, and they will often say something like, “Do you remember the time you encouraged me in…?” I’ll be honest, many times I don’t remember, but the encouragement clearly left an impact on that person. We can get so busy in life that we forget to pause and be present in the moment. Being present in the now is setting up for the long-term. We need to have confidence God has a plan, and His plan will lead to good things. Take the TIME to sow the seeds.
On July 20, 2012, seven days before her birthday, my mom passed away at age 61 from liver failure due to alcoholism. At the funeral, half of the attendees were there for me and half for my stepdad. There was not one person there for my mom. Her mental health and addiction alienated the people around her, and they all eventually left, including me. When I had come back and interacted with her later in life, she hadn’t changed, but my posture had. I was willing to listen to her stories, spend TIME with her doing nothing, and offer an encouraging word. That TIME created the opportunity to talk about life, pain, and, ultimately, faith. Without that TIME, she would not have known the significance of Jesus in our lives—in her life too.
It can be so hard to serve someone when you believe more in them than they believe in themselves, but I am convinced that with TIME, they will build the confidence to navigate a complicated life with fewer struggles. Then maybe poverty can be a thing of the past…
Jayson Henry, CEO of The Well