A Blind Workforce and Problem Solving

A while ago, my local NBC affiliate ran a news story about the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA). The story focused on NABA’s manufacturing program, which employees blind people, other visually impaired people, and sighted people. More specifically, the story focused on that program’s work making safety vests and neck tabs for women’s military uniforms; work that involves both sewing and ironing. The story makes it clear that there are challenges to this—the sewing machines need minor accommodations, and at least one of the employees was a little worried about using the iron when she started—but that it is also an important program in a population with a 70% unemployment rate.

And I like a few things about this program:

First, it’s just awesome to provide blind and other visually impaired people with meaningful work.

Second, the jobs that it provides don’t seem like stereotypical jobs for blind and visually impaired people, though on reflection I have no idea what the stereotypical jobs would be. Giving people jobs that don’t fit into a stereotypical mold helps show that those people can do more than sighted people often think that they can.

Third, NABA makes sure that blind, visually impaired, and sighted people work together, and that kind of integration is important.

But the fourth is the most important: NABA actually solved the problem that they set out to solve. That’s not exactly right: the blind and visually impaired community still has a very high unemployment rate and NABA hasn’t solved that problem. But what I mean is that NABA decided to approach unemployment in the community in a straightforward way: by hiring people.

Too often, when we try to solve big social problems—especially when they’re related to things like employment and poverty—we try to solve them from the edges. We create classes that teach people ‘soft skills’ or budgeting or how to manage a checking account. NABA also offers programs like that, but when they saw that blind and visually-impaired people needed jobs, they started providing jobs.

And that’s important. As I’ve written elsewhere, organizations that work with people living in poverty often get the direction of causation wrong. They think that some maladaptive behaviors cause poverty. And while they’re not wrong in every case, it’s also true that poverty causes maladaptive behaviors. In fact, it’s more likely that poverty will cause maladaptive behaviors than vice versa. And that means that trying to fix the behavior without directly addressing the poverty is a lot harder; and that addressing the poverty will probably also fix the behavior.

In other words, if the problem is that someone is unemployed, it is probably more helpful to just give them a job—even if that requires some accommodation—than to focus on soft skills or budgeting or whatever.

NABA’s approach is the right one: if blind and visually impaired people need jobs, the best approach is to give them jobs.

Now we just need to approach the broader unemployment and underemployment problems the same way: create employment opportunities, give people jobs.

Compassionate Capitalism and the Odious Orphanage

Lately, I’ve been playing with an idea I call ‘compassionate capitalism’. This is the idea that we can use capitalism — an economic system where private parties own the means of production and operate them to make a profit for themselves — to solve big social problems like poverty. One example of this is Lumni, a for-profit business that provides money to low-income students so that they can pay for their educations. Lumni does not provide loans. Instead, it uses income sharing agreements. Lumni provides the money for an education, and the student agrees to give a certain percentage of her income to Lumni for a certain number of years. Investors make money by investing in social impact funds. Think of it as investing in a group of students. If that group, on average, gets jobs that pay well, then the fund is profitable and those profits can be paid out to investors. The students get an education that might otherwise not be available to them. The investors get to make a social impact that they believe in… and make a profit. Capitalism makes a positive social impact.

Charity skeptics really like compassionate capitalism, and both Dan Pallotta and Steve Rothschild are advocates. In fact, I first learned about Lumni from Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit.

But there’s an obvious potential problem here. In Lumni’s case, we should expect there to be a greater interest in educating people who will make large salaries (and who are, therefore, more profitable) than in people who make smaller salaries (and who are, therefore, less profitable). So if there is a student who will make a six-figure salary in supply chain logistics for an international corporation that uses Bangladeshi sweatshops, Lumni should be more likely to invest in that student than in one who will make a mid-five-figure salary rooting out corruption in local governments. To put it simply, capitalist markets only care about one value: profitability.

So, while it’s probably true that capitalism can be used to mitigate big social problems (as long as it’s reined in by other values), there no guarantee that it will be used to do that. And if you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in both sides of the equation. She could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. In fact, a single company could work both sides, making profits on a vicious circle.

If you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. Click To Tweet

Which brings me to the odious orphanage.

Recently, I was told a story that was meant to illustrate why mission trips are… problematic. A lot of charity skeptics argue against mission trips on the basis that they feed voluntourism. Under this theory, mission trip volunteers tend to be more interested in the experience of helping than actually helping. And, of course, they’re willing to pay. So, for example, mission trip volunteers end up building a school that could have been built by local laborers (who also need the income). Another group of volunteers might paint the same wall that a group coming after them will paint, and that a group coming after them will paint. Or a group of volunteers might repair a house, but do such a poor job that the work just needs to be done again my professionals. In all of these cases and more, charity skeptics argue that it would be better to invest in local labor — often through loans or grants, not gifts — who could do this work.

The story that I was told involved an orphanage in a developing nation that had basically invested in the voluntourism model. It needed money, and it could get that money by charging wealthy westerners for the experience of coming to the orphanage and reading to the orphans. And, of course, the worse off the orphans were, the more they could charge the westerners for the experience. So the orphanage made sure that it kept the orphans living in squalor!

I have no idea if that story is true. But I do know that it’s not an indictment of mission trips. Mission trip volunteers who go to that orphanage to read to orphans aren’t doing anything wrong. At least, they’re not doing anything more wrong than buying clothes that were originally made in that Bangladeshi sweatshop I mentioned earlier, or a smart phone that relies on rare earth elements mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem in this story isn’t people wanting to read to orphans. It’s the mindset that makes the orphanage be willing to exploit those orphans in order to get money.

Now, that’s not exactly capitalism, but it’s capitalism adjacent. The same mindset is there. The odious orphanage is willing to abandon — or, at least, to downplay — other values in the interest of acquiring money. It’s a perfect example of why we need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even ‘compassionate capitalism’ that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place.

We need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even 'compassionate capitalism' that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place. Click To Tweet

Rationality and Sensibility

I majored in philosophy in college. One of my classes was called ‘Morality and the Law’. As part of that class, we read and discussed a lot of Supreme Court cases (as well as other cases). And one of the ideas that cropped up in a lot of those cases was the idea of the reasonable person. This is the hypothetical — and entirely fictional — person who exercises case, makes good judgements, and is generally neither a genius nor an idiot in their daily lives. They are the standard that we judge other people against. For example, we judge whether someone is negligent by asking what a reasonable person would do in the same circumstances.

We also tend to use that judgement when we’re judging other people in our everyday lives. We like to think that other people are rational. More accurately, we like to think that we are rational, and that if other people would just learn and think, they would be like us. And we especially apply that standard to people living in poverty.

For example, in their book Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith write that “One of the biggest difficulties in getting out of poverty is managing money and just the general information base around money.” People in the middle class know how to do things like use a credit card and manage a checking account. They know how to get a good interest rate on care loan. They understand mortgages, annuities, and insurance. If people living in poverty just knew how to do those things — if they just knew how to think — everything would be fine.1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle edition (Highlands: Aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle locations 642-643, 596-602 

The problem is that people aren’t rational. At least, we’re not just rational. We are also emotional, impulsive, intuitive, and hundreds of other things. We are a thousand chattering voices, many of which are submerged in our subconscious. Sometimes reason wins out. At least as often, emotion, impulse, intuition, desire, or some other voice wins out. In fact, reason tends to win out only when we’re working hard to make sure that it does. So, in spite of that background in philosophy — a discipline where we prize reason — I prefer to think of us as sensible: if we knew everything about that conversation that was going on in someone else’s head, we would look at their actions and say, “yeah, that makes sense.”

One of the big differences between poverty and non-poverty is that being middle-class — let alone wealthy — means having a cushion for all of the non-rational things we do. I can impulsively spend ten dollars on something dumb and it’s no big deal. Someone living in poverty doesn’t have that slack. The simple difference is that there is a much higher demand on the person who is experiencing poverty to be rational.

We're sensible, not rational. And being middle-class, let alone wealthy, means having a financial cushion for all of the irrational things that we — that all of us — do. Click To Tweet

And here’s the thing: when we’re thinking about how to address poverty, we have at least two choices:

We can take the approach that charity skeptics take and try to teach and enforce rationality. I think that doing that isn’t likely to work. Being rational takes effort, and effort isn’t infinitely sustainable. Being rational often enough to work your way out of poverty — consistently making the right choices without giving in to emotion or impulse — is all but impossible.

We can take a charitable approach and start by building a cushion for people who are experiencing poverty. It’s a little counterintuitive, but by giving some space to be irrational, we can make it easier to be rational when it counts. For example, by giving people the option to make a bad financial choice once a week — to blow two dollars on a candy bar or four dollars on a latte — we also help make sure that they don’t use their energy up on being rational about the little things. And that makes it more likely that they’ll have the energy to be rational about the big things.

Footnotes   [ + ]

There’s Nothing Wrong with a Handout

The other week, a colleague came to tell me about an idea he had to provide shelter for homeless families in our area. The backbone of the idea was providing shelter. The responsibility to provide overnight housing for these families would be rotated among the churches in the area. There would also be a central location where parents could get help finding a job and other services while their children were in school.

And, while there are a lot of details to figure out, I thought it was a good idea. I’m going to take it to my community outreach committee to see what they think and what we can do.

But when my colleague ended his pitch, he used an old trope: it’s not a handout… it’s a hand up.

And I thought two things.

First, it’s totally a handout. We’re talking about giving people a place to stay overnight and help connecting to jobs and services. I think we should also help them with food, clothing, and other needs. All of these things are handouts.

Second, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At this point, the research is clear that handouts work. Countless studies of direct cash transfers from around the world show three important things:

Cash transfers have an array of positive impacts on the people who receive them. Transfers are associated with increased birthweight, reduction in HIV infections and psychological distress, increased schooling, and decreased child labor

Cash transfers have long-term effects. People who receive transfers invest the money in ways that lead to increased income in the years that follow (like getting vocational training or investing in a business) and that increase future savings and flexibility (like replacing a thatched roof with a metal one).

People who receive cash transfers don’t tend to abuse them. Recipients don’t spend the money on temptation goods or reduce their work hours. Some studies even show that transfer recipients are less likely to spend money on temptation goods and more likely to work more hours (especially as they move into skilled work).

Cash transfers have an array of positive effects, including long-term effects. And people who receive them don't tend to abuse them. Click To Tweet

Obviously, the low-income families that researchers studied in countries like Uganda,1Christopher Blattman, Nathan Fiala, Sebastian Martinez, “The Economic and Social Returns to Cash Transfers” Kenya,2Innovations for Poverty Action, “The Impact of Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya” and Morocco,3Najy Benhassine, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen, “Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A ‘Labeled Cash Transfer’ for Education,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2015, 7(3): 86–125 aren’t the same as homeless families in Iowa. But the research gives us good reason to believe that the right gift — the right handout — at the right time can help people begin their journeys out of poverty. For some people, that might mean a large cash payment. For others, it might be a place to stay for a few nights, a warm meal, and some help finding a job. For others, it might be a few hundred dollars to help them avoid a late mortgage payment. Those are all handouts, and they can all help people.

So let’s ditch the idea that help for people living in poverty needs to be in the form of a hand up instead of a handout. Sometimes — maybe even most of the time — the right handout is exactly the hand up someone needs.

Let's ditch the idea that help for people living in poverty needs to be in the form of a hand up instead of a handout. Sometimes — maybe even most of the time — the right handout is exactly the hand up someone needs. Click To Tweet

Footnotes   [ + ]

Charity Skepticism

This post is a reworking of a few previous posts to introduce a key reason that I research and write about charity: the rise of charity skepticism in the Christian church. The posts that this brings together are The Case Against Charity (January 18, 2016), The Case For Charity (May 30, 2016), and Charity Matters (January 4, 2016).

Half a decade or so ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy

What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and YourselfSteve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit SuccessRuby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.

Call it charity skepticism.

Charity skepticism comes in three forms.

Skepticism about giving. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about the nonprofit sector. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that the nonprofit sector is able  to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about people living in poverty. Charity skeptics tend to argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.

Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.

But charity skepticism is wrong. Emerging research and rapidly growing literature indicate that charity — giving money to people living in poverty — is an effective way to alleviate poverty… provided that it is generous enough. Poverty is largely the problem of having enough money. And when people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives. Not every time, of course, but often enough that giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty.

But charity skepticism is wrong... When people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives... Giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty. Click To Tweet

That doesn’t mean that charity skeptics are arguing in bad faith. I think that Robert Lupton, Ruby Payne, and others really do want to help people who are living in poverty. Unfortunately, charity skeptics have a prior commitment to the modern Western economic order. The skeptical argument wants to help people experiencing poverty within the bounds of systems that prioritize exchanges over gifts. Or, to put it bluntly, the skeptical argument tries to solve poverty with the systems that create and maintain poverty in the first place.

And charity is a powerful alternative to those systems. One of the things I’ll be doing with the blog going forward is making a strong case for charity from a Christian perspective. This will be based on three key ideas:

That charity is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to people living in poverty and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

That charity presents an alternative to living in an uncaring world.  Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.

That charity works. As I already mentioned, a growing body of research shows that giving to people living in poverty really does have transformative effects. People who are experiencing poverty tend to know what they need to do to improve their lives, and tend to meet those needs when they are given the resources to do so.

About This Blog: Charity

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: charity.

In 2012 or so, my parents sent me a copy of Robert Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). It was my introduction to a movement — let’s call them ‘charity skeptics’ — that believes that charity is harmful. As Lupton describes it, America rejected the idea of doing for others what they can, or should be able to, do for themselves when welfare reform passed; but, through private charity, we continue to perpetuate a welfare system that creates dependency, erodes the work ethic, and cannot alleviate poverty. The solution to this problem is dramatically reducing charity in favor of a different approach that favors employment, lending, and investing.1Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 22, 128 And, of course, Lupton is not alone in this. Thought leaders like Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Ruby Payne, Steve Rothschild, and Dan Pallotta all make similar or complementary arguments. And a lot of the work of charity skepticism is aimed specifically at churches and Christian nonprofits.

As a pastor and a nonprofit development professional, I’ve spent the last decade or so studying the history, philosophy, theology, and effectiveness of charity, philanthropy, and other forms of giving. And the simple fact is that while charity skeptics may have some good points, and while some alternatives to traditional charity (like microloans) might be effective, the overall thrust of the skeptical argument is wrong. Charity is a cornerstone of Christian theology; charity is the foundation of the alternative social order that the Christian church embodies; and charity works.

I’m working on another, bigger project about charity and charity skepticism. But part of what this blog is about is what charity is and why it matters, as well as where (and maybe sometimes why) charity skeptics go wrong.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Addie Zierman: The Inadequate Gifts That Change the World

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

Addie Zierman: The Inadequate Gifts That Change the World

Economic and Political Empowerment

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this link to a story at the Washington Post. Here’s the gist. A lot of international organizations focus on women’s empowerment. But a lot of those organizations think of empowerment in terms of the ability to make a livelihood. They give women chicken or goats, or microloans to start a small shop in their home, or a sewing machine. Now empowering women is good, but the ability to make a living is good. But women aren’t suffering just because they can’t make money. Women are suffering because they don’t have political power. And organizations tend not to focus on that.

So women end up receiving financial or material help that doesn’t lead to longterm economic gains. And women still end up being denied the political power that they could use to change the systems that are keeping them — and their communities — in the ways that would lead to longterm economic and social improvement.

As the article puts it:

This narrow definition ignores something important: Women suffer not just because they don’t have a form of income. Women are part of a system that fundamentally doesn’t favor them, that makes it hard for them to obtain and stay in power. To change that, the report says, these women need political power. As one of the report’s co-authors, Rafia Zakaria, wrote in the New York Times: “Without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable.”

Many of us in the West — especially, maybe, charity skeptics — tend to have a narrow view of empowerment that is focused on providing people with the tools to find economic livelihoods. Job training, soft-skills education, and other employment programs become the beginning and end of empowerment. Often, that means taking on work that serves the interests of the relatively wealthy more than it does those of people experiencing poverty.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work on economic empowerment. But any economic empowerment project needs to be paired with political empowerment projects. People living in poverty need to have a substantial voice in the issues that affect them, from minimum wages and universal basic incomes to health care and criminal justice reform. Economic empowerment by itself can only help people survive in the system as it is; political empowerment can change the system so that it is more egalitarian and more likely to actually benefit people experiencing poverty.

Charity as a Foundation

A while ago, Jacobin published an article titled “A Foundation, Not a Net.” Here’s an excerpt:

A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.

Go read the whole thing, of course. The basic idea is that the welfare state isn’t a safety net. Pensions, social security, medicare, public education, and other entitlements and services aren’t things that people rely on in a disaster. They are “universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through.”

I wonder if we can think of charity in the same way.

Often, when we think about charity, we think of it as a safety net. Sometimes, that means that we think of it as something that people use when the high wire snaps (during a disaster). Other times, when we see people in the safety net a lot, we think of it as something that people use because they can’t do the work to use the high wire successfully (they’re lazy, entitled, dependent, and so on). At its worst, this becomes charity skepticism: the idea that the safety net entangles people, and that people start treating it as a hammock.

But, at its most basic, charity is something deeper than that. The word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas. In Latin Christianity, caritas was one of two words used to translate a Greek word: agape. The kind of selfless love that God shows the world and that we are commanded to show each other.

I would like us to imagine charity as the love we owe each other; the foundation on which people can build their lives. Sometimes, that might look like a robust welfare state providing education, social security, and access to health care. Sometimes, that might look like private philanthropy providing community centers, child care, and cultural opportunities. Sometimes, that might look like personal charity providing someone with a place to sleep or a hot meal.

In every case, it means not having to worry that taking a risk – whether that’s leaving a soul crushing job or leaving an abusive relationship – will result in destitution. A charitable community is a community where there is a foundation for life; where people are free to create their best selves in covenant with each other.

He Who Does Not Work, Neither Shall He Eat

It happens sometimes. A conservative friend will read something by someone like me – someone who suggests being more generous towards people living in poverty or someone who advocates for a universal basic income – and they’ll cite this fragment of a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians12 Thessalonians 3:10:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

It’s a popular bit of conservative ethics. Unfortunately, it’s also torn from its context and repeated without any reflection.

In this post, I’m going to look at this phrase and a few of the reasons why it’s wrong to use it to imply that government programs or charitable organizations should require people to work in order to receive help.

No One Means It

The most basic problem with how people use this verse is that no one actually means it. Everyone makes exceptions in the name of compassion. Nobody says that children must work. Or elderly people. Or sick people. Or disabled people. Everyone intuitively understands that work can’t be used as a criterion for help without considering the context.

At first, it might seem like there’s a simple solution: returning to something closer to the meaning of the original Greek, as seen in the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV translates the adage this way: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This changes the criterion to something more compassionate. It’s no longer that a person must actually work in order to have what they need to meet their most basic needs; she must only be willing to work.

But that interpretation has its own problem in the form of another exception. It’s an exception that gets made without thinking. No one applies this rule to the wealthy.

While people will cite this verse endlessly when talking about people who are receiving welfare or charitable aid, it is never used on the rare occasion when people talk about the idle rich. For example, if Jared Kushner quit his job today – such as it is – and chose to spend his life sitting around playing video games, no one would suggest that he should be denied food or kicked out of his home or lose any of the other things to which he has grown accustomed.

And that’s because what people seem to mean when they say, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is something closer to “he who does not pay, neither shall he eat.”

This is an important distinction. And use of this verse tends to obscure it.

On the one hand, when people use the phrase, they tend to mean that only people who can pay should eat. And they tend not to care about where the money came from. That money could come from good and honest work or from building supply chains that sacrifice children for profit. That money could come from a massive inheritance. That money could come from cheating and swindling. As long as the money is there, the specifics don’t matter.

On the other hand, by saying, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” people imply that work is the only source of money. The honest laborer, the trust fund child, and the swindler are all collapsed into the image of the person who works for a living. The use of the phrase ends up hiding what people seem to really mean by it.

The Other Side of the Work Requirement

But let’s suppose that people really do mean something like “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” or “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Let’s imagine that, outside of a few cases where people really truly cannot work, the people who use this phrase want to apply it to the poor and the rich alike.

There’s still a problem: if people have to work in order to eat, then there also have to be jobs for those people to do. It’s intuitively unfair to require people to work if there’s no opportunity.

Now, it’s easy to think that there is work available for anyone who wants it.

And, on a pure numbers game, that might be true. But the realities of employment and unemployment are complicated. People may be limited to the jobs for which they are qualified, to which they have reliable transportation, around which they can arrange other commitments, that are in their geographic area, and so on. And, of course, someone can be rejected from a job for any number of reasons: a criminal record, racism, sexism, and so on.

Someone looking for work can’t always just ‘find a job’. He has to find an employer that will hire him. And, in a market economy like ours, he has to find someone who will hire him at a wage that will let him buy the things he needs.

This is the core of the problem with work requirements generally, and with the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” in particular. Adding a work requirement to welfare or charity without also adding a robust employment program – not just job training, but actual employment opportunities – is nothing more than a way to refuse help to people in need.

Setting and Context

Of course, the actual letter to the Thessalonians wasn’t written in a market context where most people were privately employed and a few were relying on some form of welfare. It was written in the context of an early Christian sharing community. This was a community where people could have a reasonable expectation that they would not go hungry precisely because of the Christian emphasis on charity.

We can understand this better if we turn to another letter: 1 Timothy.

In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the author tells the community about caring for “widows who are really widows.” The assumption is that women are financially dependent on men – their fathers, their husbands, their sons – and that women who do not have a man to rely on are particularly vulnerable. It is therefore the responsibility of the Christian community to care for those widows who do not have anyone to support them. The letter to Timothy notes that some people, particularly younger widows who might remarry, might take advantage of this sharing community. Therefore, the author believed, specific rules had to be created.

But 1 Timothy doesn’t just have rules for the poor or the widowed. It also has rules for the rich. Specifically, it directs them “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God,” and to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”21 Timothy 6:17-18, NRSV The poor can rely on the sharing community precisely because the rich have a moral obligation to share their wealth with them.

2 Thessalonians assumes the same sharing economy and the same demands placed on the rich. And, like 1 Timothy, the author imagines – in fact, has heard that – some people are taking advantage of that fact. The author also points to the reason that some people might be taking advantage: some people are expecting that Christ’s return is imminent.32 Thessalonians 2:1-3 After all, what would be the point in working if Jesus is about to return?

In my interpretation, the problem being addressed by 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 is that some people are taking advantage of the sharing community, and that at least some of those people are taking advantage because they are expecting the world to end at any moment. The passage – including the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” – isn’t about people who are in need of assistance because of personal misfortune or systematic exclusion. It’s about people who are part of a sharing community but who are not contributing to it.


“He who does not work, neither shall he eat” is not about our society. It’s not about a society where people are free – perhaps even expected – to make as much money as possible and use it for their own power, privilege, and prestige. It’s about a sharing community where the wealthy are expected to give and the poor have a right to their help. It’s about a society where work is available; where people have the real opportunity to contribute to their community. It’s about the church.

And that makes applying it to the world very difficult. To do that, we would have to use it when we talk about the idle rich as well as the unemployed poor. We would have to use it to justify why opportunities to work are so readily available. We would have to give the wealthy and powerful serious responsibilities to care for the least among us.

For those reasons, and more, people need to stop using the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” to foist work requirements on people in need.

Footnotes   [ + ]


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