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5 Things I've Learned About Poverty Since Leaving College

WRITTEN BY MELISSA GILES

I’m a small town kid at heart.


I grew up in a town with six streets, no traffic lights, and no fast food joints. We didn’t lock our house during the day and my parents often left their car keys in the ignition. As a tight knit community, I had many aunties and uncles who were not biologically related to me. And while First Nations communities surrounded my home town, the most ethnically diverse conversations we had were around whether you were Ukrainian, French, Dutch, or German.

Oh, and we didn’t talk about poverty.

I can think of families that had less than we did and I can remember pictures of children on TV - barely clothed with flies in their eyes and bloated bellies. But we didn’t talk about poverty. We didn’t talk about “short term missions”. We didn’t talk about refugees or internally displaced people. And we didn’t talk about poverty.

As a teenager, I started going on educational trips overseas. After university I continued to expand my horizons with an 8 month round-the-world backpacking tour and an internship in Uganda. These experiences opened my eyes to realize that my life was not the norm and my privileged childhood was not the reality of most children. My perspective began to shift dramatically, and has led to what sometimes feels like a giant and unsettling rift in my worldview.

Here are 5 of the biggest changes.

1. "It’s not [just] about the Money, Money, Money"

I held the mindset well into my adult years that poverty was about money or the lack of it. And if it wasn’t lack of money, then it was definitely “lack of shelter” or “lack of food” or “lack of fill-in-the-blank.”

You see, I had been led to believe that poverty was about the absence of resources, and if we just gave or redistributed resources we could solve the problem! But I’ve come to understand poverty as so much more than that. Of course, money is a necessary part of the equation, but a solution to poverty requires a lot more than dollars and cents.

Here’s a quote from a person living below the poverty line in Moldova: “For a poor person everything is terrible – illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.” (from When Helping Hurts)

Statements like this one have made me realize that poverty is so much more than a material issue.

2. It’s Darn Complex!

The statement speaks for itself. When I ventured out into the world in my early twenties, I thought the answers were straightforward. That didn’t last long! I quickly realized there is always - always - something more going on than what we can observe or what we think is happening.

So, instead of starting out with problem solving, my goal as a “helper to the poor” became first and foremost to listen and learn. Because poverty is complicated.

3. Poverty Affects the Whole person

In many ways, material poverty is the most visible kind of poverty because we can observe its symptoms.

As I’ve matured and walked alongside more people, however, I have begun to see that poverty affects the whole person - their emotional, social, and spiritual well being.

Working in Liberia, I discovered that people needed hope as much as anything in order to begin thinking about making changes.

4. Poverty isn’t just a “poor” person’s issue

The fourth big shift in my thinking was realizing that even rich people can be poor.

In what ways, you ask? We are the richest generation in history and yet we have increasing cases of stress, anxiety, depression, and mental illness in our culture. Our youth struggle to find their identity and purpose while the broader society struggles with the negative effects of rampant individualism, instant gratification, and unbridled consumerism.

Emotional and relational poverty is real. Externally, it looks different than material poverty, but internally, the brokenness we each experience has concrete and substantial consequences.

5. Being helpful will most likely cost me something

Drs. Corbett and Fikkert, authors of When Helping Hurts, write, “Unless we admit our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”

Ouch. This quote makes me long for the naivety of my childhood because back then I didn’t know about the complexities of poverty. But as I gained more life experience, I awoke to the brokenness around me and in me, and that awakening has proved costly for me - as it will for you.

Some of the cost will be financial. If we awaken to the fact that our daily purchases - clothing, food, electronics – are connected to a person half way around the world who is suffering to provide us with daily goods, we may feel compelled to change the way we buy in order to offer that labourer a fair wage. That will cost us more out-of-pocket change.

In addition to money, it will cost me my own comfort and pride - I will have to acknowledge my own poverty and deal with the messy parts of my own life. Poverty isn’t just about “fixing” someone else and their situation; it’s saying, “Guess what? I’ve got poverty in my own life, too, and it is affecting my overall well being.”

But I think the real cost is actually greater than a hit to the wallet or my own pride. Waking up to economic injustice and trying to change it will cost us emotionally - our hearts will break for the people who are suffering.

So, what now?


Perhaps you, like me, are on a journey of understanding poverty. One of the best resources that has helped me along this journey is the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Reading that book was like having someone turn the light on. The book provided language to communicate ideas I had been thinking about for years, it gave me a context in which to engage others in conversation, and it provided a Biblical framework for understanding poverty.

It’s one of the major reasons that I’m at Food for the Hungry Canada. And it’s why I’m committed to bringing the Helping without Hurting Conference to Calgary on May 23, 2015 so hundreds more people can have their poverty paradigm shifted, too. 

Care to join the adventure?




Melissa Giles is the Training Manager at FH Canada and has extensive field work experience in West Africa. She is passionate about smart development and poverty education.

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Food for the Hungry: 5 Things I've Learned About Poverty Since Leaving College
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