I frequently speak with people about the Stewart Center, and on occasion, the topic of poverty arises. Of all the reasons for poverty, my experiences tell me that a large percentage of the people I encounter believe that poor choices/habits are a major factor influencing the life condition of individuals on the bottom of society. Those that consider themselves “non-poor” routinely site the unhealthy eating, spending, educational, reproductive, and social habits of the poor as reasons for their insufferable circumstances; consequently our churches, social organizations and government agencies step in to help alter the habits of the “disadvantaged,” believing that changing habits will lead to a more desirable existence.

The above mentioned habits are micro-habits, projected onto groups of people but performed by individuals. These habits are triggered by cues that lead to routines which produce “rewards” for the individual. For example, a cue of stress might lead to a routine of drinking alcohol which produces the “reward” of relief. While this may be an individual habit, it is not a problem until enough people engage in the habit for others to notice. There has never been a church mission trip, social program or government initiative launched to solve a problem that affects only one person.

Recently I have been wondering if there exists a macro-habit of poverty. Could there be large social cues, routines and “rewards” that result in a habit of poverty among communities? What if there is a social cue of denigration toward certain people, and what if that cue robs people of hope and produces a routine where those “with value” assist those of “lesser value,” and what if that routine/habit produces a “reward” for the helpers while harming those that receive the assistance?

All of a sudden I find myself considering the possibility that there exists a habit surrounding the social practices that our churches and charities employ to “assist” those in need. Could it be that the micro-habits of the poor are only part of the problem and that the habit of help that influences our good intentions contributes to the poverty we seek to alleviate? The idea of helpers hurting those they intend to help is not a new one, but I have never heard anyone approach our benevolent tendencies as if they were habits.

For many of us, our social engagement follows the typical habit loop – cue, routine, reward. We experience a cue – moving testimony by a missionary, stirring documentary, endorsement of a cause by a friend, which leads to a routine – giving of our time, attention, and resources to help fix a problem, which results in a reward for the giver – good feelings about our contributions, peace of mind about our self-worth and assurance that others have been made better.

Over the past several years, multiple church groups have volunteered to host our spring or fall festivals. The habit loop for these groups progressed from the cue – a minister identifying the Stewart Center as a mission project, to the routine – offering the resources of time and money on a short term basis, to the reward – the givers leave having a sense of accomplishment and belief that they have shared the Gospel with needy children and families.

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, Charles Duhigg elucidates the elements of the habit loop mentioned above and explores the powerful presence habits wield over our personal, organizational and communal lives. It is no surprise that brushing teeth, exercising or biting fingernails are products of habit, but Duhigg discusses things as seemingly unrelated as the habits of lab rats, the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Michael Phelps’ routine, and the habits entrenched in the success of Starbucks, to illuminate the importance of habits on human behavior.

Duhigg suggests that habits can be modified; that although cues and rewards may stay the same, our routines can be changed over time, particularly when addressed in supportive relationships. The Stewart Center is 96 years old and needs for its leadership to constantly evaluate its mission and measurable outcomes. As a part of that organizational assessment we must take inventory of the routines we utilize while engaging our community. Despite perceived pressure from funding sources and internal stress from ambition, the Center must remain committed to enriching lives through enduring relationships with individuals and our community.

For most people the stimuli that prompt them to social action are engrained in the environs of normal life – work, church, social circle, family, neighborhood, and the media. While these cues remain constant our responses have liberty to change.

The Stewart Center is looking for civic minded people and organizations willing to critique their traditional responses to social needs. We must challenge ourselves and our partners to engage in service habits where the “rewards” are realized by the children and families of our community.

Habits are morally neutral; the brain saving energy by running on autopilot. It is acceptable for habits to dictate our oral hygiene or our commute to work or our purchases at the grocery story, but it is not acceptable for our engagement with the community to go unchecked. Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Decisive: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work, state that “when we are on autopilot, our behavior goes unexamined.”

For the children of the Stewart Center, the stakes are too high for our efforts and those of our ministry partners to go unexamined.

Peace, Clayton