Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Creativity and Poverty

Many people view "the poor" (I continue to bristle at the term for a number of reasons, but that is grist for another post) as stupid, dependent, lazy and expendable.

Every time I hear or read a comment that seems headed in that direction, I realize that the source doesn't know many people who battle poverty. Low income people are like the rest of the population--you can't stereotype them. They live out their lives as unique individuals.

That said, I have noticed a creativity among the poor that is often amazing.

A few years ago a very poor woman came to one of our Resource Centers seeking assistance to pay a past due utility bill. Serving over 50,000 people annually makes it impossible for us to pay utility bills except on rare occasions.

The interviewer/case worker who visited with this woman was herself a very low-income person, as are most of our volunteers. She knew the ropes of poverty herself and came up with a great idea for the woman with the overdue light bill.

On this particular day our Thrift Store had a special sale on clothing going on--all the clothing you could stuff into a large trash bag for $1.00!

Our counselor handed the woman $2.00 out of her own pocket with the suggestion that she go to the store, purchase two large bags of clothing, return home and prepare them for sale in a yard sale to see how much money she could earn toward the payment of the overdue bill.

The woman took her advice.

About a week later, the woman returned. She located the volunteer and reported with great excitement that she had turned the $2.00 investment in clothing into more than enough to pay her bill!

She proudly repaid the $2.00 loan and went back to the Thrift Store to purchase more used clothing for another sale!

Talk about entrepreneurial!

Talk about initiative and willingness to work with what you have!

Make no mistake about it. Just because someone is poor, underemployed and unskilled for the current marketplace does not mean that they are stupid, lazy or undeserving of opportunity.

In view of what I see every day among "the poor," it is clear to me that we need to rethink how we "do charity." As a matter of fact, we need less charity and more creativity around opening doors of economic opportunity for our low-income neighbors.


c hand said...

Some of the most creative, bright, and resourceful people I’ve met are in prison. There is much that is right with these men, but of course there is something that is or at one time was wrong inside them. If you had paid her utility bill, would she have been robbed of the opportunity and initiative that we all hope will continue in her life?

Larry James said...

No, and you need to understand that this is our typical approach. We don't "do for" people here. We try to stand with and alongside. This is also the nature of most public programs, contrary to the prevalent mythology. We are not into "giveaways" here. We are about investments. This is the way public programs are designed to work as well, again, contrary to popular belief.

If a program has as a condition that I must work and continue to document my economic status, it will function as an investment supplement in my life and future, just like a scholarship. This is what I try to relate here, but it strikes me that I have been assuming everyone understands this.

The "iron rule" should be never do for someone what they can do for themselves. The corollary should be never leave a person in distress in isolation or outside the caring reach or power of the community.

Jeremy Gregg said...

On that note, some frightening news about the state of our nation's food banks, which are the last hope we have to feed the "11.9% of households (who) lack year-round access to sufficient food" . . .



Katrina shelves gifts to food banks
By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

As Hurricane Katrina donations reach near-record levels, some food banks in the USA are seeing bare shelves as they prepare for Thanksgiving and winter.

Read the rest here, in The USA Today

Clint said...


I agree. People in poverty are simply not understood well by most others. I learned this after living in Uganda for over 5 years. I was amazed at the creativity of Africans.

This below paragraph comes straight from the Kibo Group's new website encouraging more support of Africans' creativity to help themselves out of poverty.

"One of the first things tourists notice when visiting Africa is the amazing creativity of its people. Creative displays aren't limited only to artists and musicians. Creativity is on display in everyday life as old tin cans are turned into oil burning lamps, discarded tires are refitted into the world's toughest footwear, tire rims are becoming charcoal stoves. Resources are few, nothing is wasted, and resilience and resourcefulness are evident everywhere as people craft something out of nothing over and over again."


Jeremy Gregg said...


There are some very exciting things happening in the area of microfinance / microenterprise that you might be interested. Dallas is home to the Grameen Foundation, which is very involved in these issues:


They helped start The Plan Fund in Dallas:


Both are worth looking into!