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The Grasshopper Theory of Poverty and Change

by | May 20, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 3 comments

What It’s Like to Be Poor

During her term as the first woman national President of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Sheila Gilbert shared her view of the necessity for systemic change. She told the story of a man struggling with poverty. As was her style she shared a simple story that describes what it is like to be poor.

The childhood entertainment of capturing grasshoppers in a glass jar with holes in the lid has some predictable stages. “When you first capture the grasshopper, it jumps and jumps and jumps, trying to get out, banging its head against the lid,” recalls Gilbert. “But the longer the grasshopper’s in there, the less high it jumps, the less it tries, until finally it just sits on the bottom. That’s what it is to be in poverty long-term. After a while, you just can’t bang your head anymore. You just sit there!”

That story moves her to a two-fold conclusion: “We have to take the lid off the jar! To keep teaching people to jump and encouraging them to jump when all they do is hit their head doesn’t make any sense! So we have to take the lid off the jar as well as help the grasshopper to jump again.”

Urgent care of the symptoms of poverty needs to be coupled with a cure for the epidemic.

Questions for Vincentians

  • Can we identify the lids on the jar today?
  • what can Vincentians do to remove those lids?
  • Can Vincentians do it themselves?


  1. Jack Murphy

    This is a great reminder of both the simplicity and importance of our work, Fr. John. We need to approach every encounter with folks in need as an opportunity to discover their “lid” and work with them to help them open the jar. When we do that often enough, we find enough common obstacles that we can combine our individual interventions with community wide solutions. That’s how we systemically remove the conditions that hold poverty in place.
    It all starts with engaging impacted people in designing their future.

  2. John Freund, CM

    I particularly appreciate “We need to approach every encounter with folks in need as an opportunity to discover their “lid” and work with them to help them open the jar.”

    • Ross

      The simple story, in my opinion, speaks volumes about what the pedagogy of the oppressed and genuine liberation theology are about. Thank you, Sheila. Thank you, John. Isn’t simple true, indeed, and understandable, beautiful and whole.


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