Neighborhood Poverty: 4 Key Strategies

Four Hands Pointing

You want to alleviate neighborhood poverty, but don’t want to reinvent the wheel.  It turns out there are four action templates—tried-and-true strategies—for how to respond.  Each comes with its pro and con.  This conclusion comes from a study of Mississippi faith communities that sought to respond to the changes in welfare policy in the late 1990s. 

The late 1990s saw changes to federal policy that led to “charitable choice,” the idea that church and state could cooperate in poverty reduction.  Several researchers studied how Mississippi congregations responded to the law and discovered four key strategies for faith-based providers. 

These are not individual tactics, but broader strategies, and they provide action templates for anyone trying to get started.

Mississippi proved an ideal place to study faith-based poverty relief.  For years the state has had a high rate of poverty, large numbers on public assistance and a history of racial tension.  John Bartkowski and Helen Regis, both sociologists, studied thirty congregations just after the enactment of “Mississippi Faith and Families,” a state-sponsored welfare reform program.[1]   Focusing on the Golden Triangle Region in east central Mississippi, they interviewed church leaders in thirty congregations and conducted fieldwork in a subsample of five congregations—a white Southern Baptist congregation, black Missionary Baptist congregation, a white United Methodist congregation, a black Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and a white Church of God congregation. 

Four key strategies emerged, each with its pro and con:

1.  Intensive Benevolence

Examples of intensive benevolence include the following:  operating a food pantry or clothing closet, counseling for substance abuse, providing housing, or mentoring children needing homework help.  The idea here is to work directly with those who need help, face to face and over the long-term.  This strategy was especially popular with congregations located within or near low-income communities, and it sometimes involved mutual aid for the working poor who were congregation members.

PRO:  It Builds Relationships.  Pastors in the study used words like “personal,” “human” and “direct” to describe the “the redemptive power of the enduring relationships” that are forged over time.  One pastor criticized churches that only offer cash-based assistance instead of personal engagement.  “So, you know, the right hand is saying, ‘Here is five hundred dollars,’ and the left hand is saying, ‘Make sure you don’t spend it around me, because I’d rather not talk to you.’”[2]  Some pastors saw this strategy as a way to bridge racial and class differences.

CON:  It Can Reinforce Moralistic Judgments.  Researchers noted a dark side to intensive benevolence:  It “may reinforce social distinctions between the givers and the recipients of such gifts.”  For example, churches that offer hot meals typically assemble themselves into food lines where providers are stationary and recipients are mobile, a pattern that “ritually affirms the power of the gift-giving server over that of the gift-receiving client.”[3]

2.  Intermittent Relief

This strategy, the most popular in a wide variety of congregations, black and white, working class and middle class, typically involves giving one-time aid in response to a crisis or giving aid at certain times of the year (such as holiday times).

PRO:  It’s Easy to Implement.  When aid is given to someone who is well-known to the congregation, such as the relative of a congregant, it becomes easy to trust that the gift will be used as intended.  When the person asking for aid is outside the congregation and unknown to the pastor, it may be necessary to “screen” the request by:

  • Verifying the source when someone calls in a request
  • Visiting the home of the needy person to establish need
  • Discussing alternatives for getting resources before asking the church for help
  • Escorting someone to the grocery story to make purchases instead of giving cash
  • Referring someone to a faith-based or secular agency for specialized help

CON: It Can Be Exclusionary.  The problem is that most congregations in the study were so homogeneous to begin with in terms of race and class that outsiders could be excluded based on racial bias.  “It is important to recognize that the term “nonmember” is often code for an array of intersecting social cleavages. . .Race was an especially salient theme in our interviews.”[4]  Some congregations that offered intermittent relief were actually providing very little outreach per se, limiting relief to their own members. 

3.  Parachurch Collaboration

Parachurch organizations are faith-based or secular social service agencies that collaborate with a variety of congregations and draw upon pooled resources for their programs to aid the poor.

PRO:  It Has a Larger Impact.  With parachurch organizations, it’s often possible for congregations, especially smaller ones, to have a larger impact than they otherwise would.  Besides, it’s more efficient to pool resources.  Finally, social service agencies provide a certain level of professionalism unavailable to congregations that start a program from scratch.

CON:  It Can Create Social Distance.  Despite good intentions, collaborating with a social service agency may exacerbate the social distance between the congregation and the people being served.  “By outsourcing the actual provision of aid, the faith community can, strategically or unwittingly—avoid offering direct assistance to the poor.”  Sending funds to specialized agencies may become a way of avoiding “uncomfortable questions about the use of member donations” which healthy congregations should be addressing.[5]

4.  Distant Mission

In addition to local efforts, many congregations offer a “pilgrimage” to a distant location—perhaps a youth group or a mixed team of youth and adults—to confront a situation of extreme poverty and provide assistance.  Most congregations in the study limited themselves to a Southern destination within a day’s drive, while larger, urban, middle class congregations also offered overseas mission trips.

PRO:  It Can Lead to Transformation.  Like a religious pilgrimage, these trips can offer opportunities for transformation, whether materially as a small step to community improvement, or spiritually for team members who become more aware of their own economic privilege and get a better understanding of social conditions that others face.  Working alongside poor people just might help middle class volunteers overcome their own misperceptions about poverty.

CON: Though Not Necessarily.  There is no guarantee that simply working in poor conditions will lead to an enduring awareness of social inequality.  Something more—such as a strong educational component—is needed.  Likewise, there is no guarantee that a distant mission trip will lead to local activism.  Long-term community development, initiated and maintained by the local community itself, is often better suited to bringing social change.


[1] John Bartkowski, Helen Regis. 2003. Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era. (New York University Press, 2003).

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3]Ibid., 70.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 81.

Image:  The Direction:  Pointing Finger in Four Directions.  Found at


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