May 5, 2012  |  In the News

When Helping Doesn’t Help

If you log on to most any social services website you’ll see testimonials of people who overcame huge odds to improve their lives. The stories have a similar cadence of intervention: “My mother was poor/a drug addict/beat me, but this teacher/social worker/community organizer took me under her wing and gave me a chance — now I’m off-the-streets/have a job/in college.” These testimonials pull on our heartstrings and can inspire us to help too. I find it difficult, but necessary, to tell such well-intentioned people that their assistance can do harm.

I get the jitters asserting that helping can be harmful — it sounds so right-wing, especially amidst the heated rhetoric when even a presidential candidate asserts that poor people have no work ethic.

When the name callers of the world attack low-income families, those on the other side of the political spectrum counter by asking for compassion. They argue that poor people are needy victims who can overcome their disadvantages with the help of professionally led programs. This perspective is damaging in a different way. As John McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University, points out, helpers can do more harm than good because those being helped are automatically defined as “needy.” Everyone has challenges, but in order for professional helpers to justify their work, recipients are defined solely by their deficits.

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