Sunday, February 7, 2010

Learning empathy for the poor through unemployment

Most people believe poverty is simply the lack of material goods. While lack of food or money is normally the most visible aspect of poverty, there are social and psychological components to poverty that are incredibly destructive but often ignored by those lending aid. Up until the last couple of years, I really didn't understand the psychological and social components of poverty. All those sad faces that I saw were surely the result of bad choices or natural disasters that would pass, and now they needed to buck up and get with the program, right? And then unemployment hit me...

Before we get to that, let's first look at how the poor actually describe their situation. These quotes are from a World Bank study called "Voices of the Poor":

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.
Blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova 1997

I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.
A father in Guinea-Bissau 1994

During the past two years we have not celebrated any
holidays with others. We cannot afford to invite anyone to our house and we feel uncomfortable visiting others without bringing a present. The lack of contact leaves one depressed, creates a constant feeling of unhappiness, and a sense of low self-esteem.
Latvia 1998

So we now feel somewhat helpless. It is this feeling of helplessness that is so painful, more painful than poverty itself.
Uganda 1998

So how do the poor describe poverty? Yes, they mention having a lack of material things but they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms. They talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. When we ignore these vital components of poverty, our good intentions to help the poor will simply fall short.

If you don't have empathy maybe it will be given to you!

So how has unemployment given me empathy for the poor? I have enjoyed a relatively successful high-tech career, always "up and to the right". But I've hit some rocky periods lately, with 2 periods of unemployment during the last 3 years, each around 6 months in length.(I have just found a new job which I will be starting soon, after being laid off from a start-up around 5 months ago.) These periods of unemployment have taught me some very valuable lessons, things that I would never have understand from just reading something in a book. And now as I look at poverty, I realize that God has used these times of unemployment to give me not only understanding, but real empathy in regards to the psychological and social components of poverty.

I have not been forced to live on the streets, and we have kept our home and cars. I in no way mean to minimize the conditions of the poor by comparing them to my own relatively posh existence. But I have encountered darkness during unemployment that is indeed very dark. For example, I noticed that I started to avoid talking to people. I just got sick of saying that I was "looking for work" and explaining how I came to be unemployed. I found it difficult to deepen relationships during this time because I was protecting myself by avoiding conversation. So it doesn't surprise me at all that poor people are isolated and have a hard time engaging with the world around them in productive ways. I pray that I will be more sensitive to this in the future and be more determined and committed to reaching out to the poor, even if they act aloof and unapproachable.

At a deeper level, being unemployed can strip you of dignity and identity. I felt like a failure. I had a hard time answering the question "What do you do?" and often thought about what I was accomplishing (or not) in this life. I tried to stay productive, but at times felt like I just wasn't contributing to the world in any meaningful way. This produces a sort of despair in the core of your being: "I am just a by-product". My faith and relationship with God kept me from the true darkness of despair, because I was continually reminded by Him that I was of tremendous worth, regardless if I received a paycheck or not. But even with this strong and sure grounding, I struggled. What utter darkness for the poor who do not have this assurance of worth! I hope that in the future I can share this good news with somebody who is struggling!

The poor are not "they". The poor are fellow humans who are suffering from a variety of types of brokenness, as we all are. This includes destructive social and psychological factors that tell the poor that they are worthless, inferior, and stuck in despair. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit our own brokenness, whether in the throes of unemployment, or during other challenges that we face in life, and be more understanding in our interaction with the poor.


  1. very good, Dave. All those emotions are how I would have described me (and James) all last year while he was unemployed.

  2. Great Post Dave. How did you find my piece?

  3. "The poor are not "they". The poor are fellow humans who are suffering from a variety of types of brokenness, as we all are."

    Thank you Dave for such transparency. The above comment really states it all, as we are all poor in some way.