What Is the Best Way to Help the Poor?

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion

Yesterday we looked at a question from a Secret Information Club member who is considering becoming Catholic and who was wondering if you have to donate every spare penny to the poor.

The short answer is that you don’t, at least not in normal circumstances. You can read the post to see why.

In the course of answering the question we noted that if everyone tried the donate-every-spare-penny strategy then it would crash the world economy and cause economic chaos that would actually impoverish people.

While helping the poor is imperative for Christians, the donate-every-spare-penny strategy is not the best way to accomplish it.

We also noted that history shows that a better way to help people is by encouraging economic development through letting them have and enjoy private property and offering economic opportunity. This leads to . . .

The Best Way to Help the Poor

The best way to help the poor is thus to enable them to participate in the same kind of economic development that has brought prosperity to others.

It means not shutting them out. Not keeping them down. Helping them get rid of governments that are deliberately obstructing the economic developement of their own people so that the pockets of the local kleptocracy can be lined.

It means all those things.

It’s the same principle embodies in the common idea that if you give a man a fish, he has food for a day, but you teach him to fish, he has food for a lifetime.

To put it another way, giving someone a job is better than giving someone a handout.

Plan B

Both strategies are necessary at times. Sometimes a person is in a situation where, through no fault of his own (or even though his fault), he cannot work.

Handouts in those situations can be absolute lifesavers–literally.

They can, as we have seen in the previous post, be morally obligatory and acts not only of mercy but of justice.

But they are not the preferred solution. Work is better.

As the Church also recognizes, work is ennobling. It better corresponds to the dignity of the individual by allowing him to make a positive contribution to the common good, and helping the poor though economic development (and all that involves, including security, job education, investment, etc.) should be the goal.

Alms for the poor have a definite and very important place, but they cannot be an end in themselves.

They must be “Plan B”–something that is used when helping someone find productive work is not (for the moment or on an ongoing basis) possible.

But when we can, it’s better to help someone with productive employment.

So What About Golf Clubs?

In the previous post, the Secret Info Club member asked, in light of the need to help the poor, whether golf clubs are okay (the kind of golf clubs that you join, not the kind that you swing, although I guess the answer to the first kind will provide the answer to the second kind)–and whether it’s okay to have cable television or take vacations or participate in similar forms of rest and recreation that cost money which could be given to the poor.


For a start, not participating in these activities would mean not giving money to the people who make them possible. If people failed to engage in these activities it would mean putting them out of work, and as we saw, work is better than the handouts they would then need to survive.

The activities are morally licit in themselves. There is nothing wrong with playing golf, watching TV, or going on a vacation (though each can be done in a morally illicit way–such as getting super arrogant about one’s golf game, watching porn, or engaging in sex tourism).

As long as they are morally licit for people to participate in them, it is morally licit for people to make their living by helping others do so (e.g., as a golf pro, a TV producer, or a hotelier).

If it’s morally legitimate for people to make a living helping others enjoy these things then that’s preferable to them being reduced to poverty and having to take handouts. So that’s one reason why it’s licit to engage in these activities: It not only provides you with rest and recreation, it provides others with productive work!

Living in a Human Mode

It is always possible for us to “do more” for the poor than we are presently doing, but this fact cannot be allowed to develop into a kind of panicked scrupulosity, where we are terrified that we are sinning if we are not “doing more.”

It will always be possible to do more–either to donate more or to work harder to have more money to donate.

But trying to do those things takes us out of a human mode of existence. It can lead us, for example, to neglect our own needs–including our own need for rest and recreation and, even more importantly, our need to enjoy the good things God has allowed us to have so that we may feel gratitude to him and praise him for his gifts–as well as the needs of our family and those close to us, which are the people to whom we have the strongest obligations, after all.

God does not call us to live in a superhuman way but in a human way–what moral theologians sometimes refer to as living in modo humano.

It may be the calling of some to live heroically on the edge of the human mode. Such people are living saints. But it is not required of us in the main. Unless we find ourselves in a situation that calls for heroic action, we are not called to heroic action.

We may live in a non-heroic but morally decent way and trust God to give us the strength needed for heroic action if we are ever placed in a situation that calls for it. (This harks back to the different we discussed in the previous post about the difference between a law, which all must obey, and a counsel, which may do greater good but is not required.)

Eliminating Poverty

We may not ever be able to eliminate poverty. After all, Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you.” Though he may, hypothetically, have been speaking for his immediate disciples and not for all of world history, the problem of poverty is likely to persist into the indefinite future on one scale or another.

The good news is that poverty is diminishing!

In prior centuries the vast majority of the people of the world lived in crushing poverty, with only a few living outside of its grasp. In the past there was no middle class.

Today huge numbers of people have escaped its grip. Not only is there a middle class, but in many parts of the world people who are on the lower end of the economic ladder are amazingly–unprecedentedly–rich by historical standards.

Here in America even people who are counted as poor by relative standards are likely to have television, computers, air conditioning, telephones, cell phones, smart phones, not to mention better medical care on a charity basis than has been available at any point in human history and more than enough food to keep them from starving to death.

Are there people here in America who are poor by historical standards?

Perhaps, but they represent a tiny number, and the cause of their extreme impoverishment is due to other causes, such as not taking advantage of the enormous number of benevolence programs (run by private charities or the government) that are available to them. Frankly, they are most likely victims of one or another forms of mental illness that prevents them from taking advantage of the numerous forms of assistance that are available.

Do means to reach them and help them need to be found? Absolutely!

But the larger question remains: How can we best help the poor all over the globe?

The Global Solution

If we want to eliminate global poverty–or drastically reduce it to the extent that this is possible–then we should ask how we did the same job in the developed world.

The answer is: by encouraging economic development through respecting private property and offering economic opportunity. Both public and private charity also played a role, but these two were the engines that allowed the developed world, including America, to achieve its developed status.

They are what we need to share with the developing world, and this process is the ideal behind what is known as the “globalization” of the world economy.

We must be careful how this is done, so that entrenched economic interests in the developed world aren’t given an unfair competitive advantage, but that’s the basic goal.

When it comes to the impact of the process on individuals in the developed world and their economic activities, it means not just targeted donations to individuals in the developing world who need handouts. It also means providing work for those in such nations who want to do work and who–due to better international trade or the Internet–are able to do such work at a distance.

In other words, the solution to the global poverty problem–to the extent we can achieve it–involves a mixture of providing work as the foremost solution, providing handouts as the backup solution, and most of us living in a normal human manner rather than in the heroic manner that circumstances can demand of us in particular situations.

 One More Thing

I mentioned at the top of the post that the gentleman who asked the question is a member of the Secret Info Club, and as he notes, he’s not presently Catholic. This reveals something that may not be obvious, which is that the Secret Information Club isn’t just for Catholics. It’s for anyone who likes the kind of information I put on the blog and who would like to receive additional information by email.

For example, right now I’m preparing a message on book recommendations by Pope Benedict.

Would you like a book recommendation from the pope?

Like many of us, Pope Benedict takes a vacation in the summer to rest, recuperate, and catch up on projects.

Like the rest of us, he finds himself looking for things he can profitably read during this time.

So does Pope Benedict have any thoughts about what people might profitably read during this time?

He does.

That’s why I’ve prepared a special “interview” with Pope Benedict on just this subject that I’ll be sending to members of the Secret Information Club on Saturday, August 18th.

To find out what Pope Benedict recommends for summer reading (and it’s not big heavy theological works but stuff anybody can read–sometimes in an hour or less), sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy form:

Just email me if you have any difficulty.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy


eileenmechler August 15, 2012 at 5:38 am
freddieflea August 15, 2012 at 10:05 am

This is excellent. When I get in an argument about “out-sourcing” and buying stuff from foreign countries I try to point out that it is a form of charity, not charitable giving, to spread the means of economic development where it has formerly been lacking. I’m not advocating doing away with people’s jobs, just expanding, with justice and responsibility. And, responsibility means working for justice in Governments all over the world. That’s also what reasonable immigration does. As an aside, the Bracero Program from the ’40′s on built the middle class in Mexico. Thank you.
Now, can you please send the article to Mark Shea so he can get a clue?

Joseph Q August 15, 2012 at 11:33 am

 @freddieflea I doubt Mr. Shea needs to “get a clue”.  He is a brilliant thinker and obedient to Catholic values. 

MarkShea August 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm

 Since I have no particular disagreements with Jimmy, I am clueless about what you mean by my cluelessness.  Perhaps you are making assumption about things not in evidence?

JaneLebak August 15, 2012 at 11:28 am

This is the reason I like organizations like Heifer.org and Food For The Poor. Rather than just giving a handout, they give a handout that turns into a job: goats, rabbits, honey bees. Then those people can give a handout to someone else in their community, and the whole community eventually benefits.

Jay August 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Thank you for this post!!! I have already book marked it  for future reading. Your paragraph where you described the panicked scrupulosity regarding always believing we can and should do more to help the poor is exactly what has been such a stress in my life! I do pray that God lead my heart to understand His will with regards to serving the poor in my life, but I have missed chances to enjoy his abundant blessings through what I do have. This has been a great weight lifted off my shoulders. Any more reading/other pieces on this specific issue that you would recommend to help me and my scrupulosity toward helping the poor?

foxywebs2 August 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Secret Club member Thomas Anderson here. (Yes, I took my name from Neo)
Is it moral to make money off of Let’s Plays and Let’s Play conventions?
Let’s Play: Where you record yourself playing a video game for the Internet.
Let’s Play convention: A con or convention for Let’s Players (people who do Let’s Play’s).
As a gamer, I find it scandalous that people can make money doing apparently nothing.
At the same time, at least Let’s Players aren’t making money off of misery, like some evil dictators and organizations do.
So, I’m a bit confused on this topic.

foxywebs2 August 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Secret Club member Thomas Anderson here. (Yes, I took my name from Neo)
Is it moral to make money off of Let’s Plays and Let’s Play conventions?
Let’s Play: Where you record yourself playing a video game for the Internet.
Let’s Play convention: A con or convention for Let’s Players (people who do Let’s Play’s).
As a gamer, I find it scandalous that people can make money doing apparently nothing.
But at least Let’s Players aren’t making money off of misery, like some evil dictators and organizations do.
Still, some Let’s Players play romhacks, which are, on the whole, illegal copies of games and games created from modifying romhacks, such as Kaizo World.
So, I’m a bit confused on this topic.

HereIam108 August 15, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Hi! this is a great post, except that I have to disagree with a point that you have written. 
“It may be the calling of some to live heroically on the edge of the human mode. Such people are living saints. But it is not required of us in the main. Unless we find ourselves in a situation that calls for heroic action, we are not called to heroic action.”
Actually,by the teachings of the Magisterium, we are CALLED to be saints. That is our main purpose in life- to be holy and be saints. Being a saint, or being a “hero”, does not necessarily man that we have to do something such as dying for the Faith (few are given that privilege)- in fact, we should strive not just to be heroic, but to be holy in everything that we do. From the little things, such as picking up trash, to our everyday work, and to all things that we do, we should offer them up to God because how small they may seem to us, God magnifies these sacrifices through His grace.
These days,almost everyone is ready to die for the Faith. BUT only few are willing to offer up every single thing that they do for the glory of God.

foxywebs2 August 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm

 @HereIam108 By “heroic action” Jimmy didn’t mean the ordinary Christian life, which is sainthood or holiness, but rather Heroic Acts of Charity, such as the Evangelical Counsels of Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience. For example, Saint Josemaria didn’t enjoy the poverty of Saint Francis. There are many different spiritualities and theologies, but one Spirit of God.

foxywebs2 August 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm

 @HereIam108 For more on spirituality, check out Catholic Spiritualities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6PWDVMmwxI
As an example of different theologies, the theology of Saint Thomas is different from the theology of Saint Paul, and Saint Augustine wasn’t divinely inspired like the Apostle John was.

Robbie J August 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I believe that in this life we don’t necessarily need to go running off seeking those most in need. From time to time we will find ourseves in a situation whereby our help is desparately needed. It might be from family members or friends/relatives/colleagues etc. .Often it will be those we find disagreeable and whom we are not particularly fond of. It is at these times that our love for neighbour (and God) is put to the test. And if we do stretch out our hand in love, in order to be valid it has to be done quietly and without fanfare.

Mark30339 August 16, 2012 at 5:29 am

I have loved golf all my life.  One of the great privileges I’ve had is to walk the grounds of Augusta National during Masters week.  Yet I harbor a substantial private embarrassment over the excessive and exclusive comforts associated with the game. I choose to live with that tension and I think it aids my imagination.  For example one of the amazing things about pro golf tournaments is the elaborate tent city erected for the event.  I’ve often wondered why the Pope, and bishops everywhere, have not used these tent cities to temporarily move their administrations into the neediest communities. The bishop and his staff can be more present to the poor and draw more economic activity into that community.  Imagine a year or two in Calcutta, a year in Camden, New Jersey, a year or more in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Jimmy, does your love of authority enfeeble you too much to suggest challenges of this nature to your episcopal friends?

Kurt August 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Giving money to the poor, at least the vast majority of ‘poor’ in this country is, sadly, just throwing it away. While there are certainly many who are needy through no fault of their own, there are many who keep doing the same things over and over again that keep them there: Drug use, out of wedlock children, etc. What we as Christians need to focus on is how to bring them into the light, so to speak. Why is chastity important, why are well formed relationships important, why is education and hard work important, etc, etc. We should be the rock upon which they can build their lives.

EJohnE August 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Being concerned with one’s long term well-being is surely more respectful of one’s human dignity than giving a handout which provides only temporary help.  As you said, sometimes that temporary help is still necessary, but it’s not the kind of help that will pull them out of poverty.  It seems quite in line with this organization: http://www.povertycure.org/ Keeping the poor dependent on government assistance does not help the poor, but creating dependence and envy are still the ways many politicians will try to win their vote.

Homeschooling Works August 26, 2012 at 12:45 am

I agree with you Jimmy! When money will help we should give but it is not always the case we have to be very careful not to enable people to remain in their current situation, drugs, alcohol etc.. We can give food, clothing, shelter or just direct someone in need of where they can go to get those things. Every situation will be different. There are many ways to help the poor and you have stated them here Jimmy, money is probably the worst way for many poor people. Most of the time money or lack of it is not really the problem anyway : )

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