Fundamental Errors

One of my favorite psychological concepts is the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that we tend to attribute the actions of others to their character rather than their circumstances. When we see someone speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, for example, we tend to think that their reckless rather than thinking that they’re trying to get the emergency room.

It doesn’t say anything about our own behaviors and how we interpret ourselves. It simply says that we tend to interpret the actions of others as reflections of their character.

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because we decontextualize other people. It’s a problem because other people make decisions based on their circumstances. It’s a problem because it makes us want to fix other people’s character instead of their circumstances.

I don’t know that there’s anywhere that this is more obvious than how we address poverty.

Poverty, as I’ve written before, means not having enough money. Low-income people might face a lot of other problems, but those are other problems. Some of them contribute to poverty. Some of them are caused by poverty. But poverty is simply the condition of not having enough money.

And poverty is absolutely not a question of character.

But far too often, our attempts to address poverty are focused on character. We focus on changing family systems. We demand accountability to standards we set. We urge low-income individuals to become self-sufficient. We strive to convert low-income families to ‘middle-class culture.’ All of these strategies and more are about changing the person, not their circumstances.

And yet we know that changing the circumstances would help more. We know that changing the circumstances gives people the freedom to behave differently. We know that changing the circumstances lets people be themselves.

Changing the circumstances lets people be who they are instead of being driven by scarcity.

Believing that poverty is a problem of character is the fundamental error that makes addressing poverty so difficult. Once we imagine that poverty is a set of circumstances that can be changed – instead of a problem of character – we’ll have a much easier time ending it.

Racist Rhetoric and the Case Against Charity

Mock NAACP ApplicationRecently, I sat down with someone who was involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had a huge collection of material from that era, including a fake NAACP membership application that the White Citizens Council created as a publication piece. You can see the application on the right and click through for a larger version.

What struck me about it wasn’t just the vulgar rhetoric of white supremacy of the propaganda piece. We’re all used to the idea that Mississippi at that time was virulently racist. Those of us who have some familiarity with the place and the time know what to expect when we’re looking at documents like these.

What struck me more was that I see similar rhetoric all the time. But when I see it, it’s not directed openly at African Americans; it’s directed at low-income communities.

Family Structure

Take family structure, for example. The fake application takes several shots at a stereotypical ‘informal’ family structure among African Americans. Here are some of the questions it asks:

  • Number of Legitimate Children (if any)
  • Number of Children Fathered (if known)
  • Marital Status (check): Shacked Up, Making Out, Worn Out, Trying

The implications are obvious: African Americans have loose family structures characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality.

Now take a look at this quote from Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities:

In generational poverty, on the other hand, many marital arrangements are common-law. Marriage and divorce in a legal court are only important if there is property to distribute or custody of children…

…[The mother] may have multiple sexual relationships. Many of her children also will have multiple relationships, which may or may not produce children. The basic pattern is the mother at the heart of things, with nearly everyone having multiple relationships, some legal and some not. Eventually the relationships become intertwined. It wouldn’t be out of the question for your sister’s third husband to become your brother’s ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend. Also in this pattern are babies born out of wedlock to children in their early teens; these youngsters are often raised by the grandmother as her own children. For example, the oldest daughter has a child at 14. This infant becomes the youngest child in the existing family. The oldest daughter, who is actually the mother of the child, is referred to as her sister— and the relationship is a sibling one, not a mother-daughter one.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 804-823

Payne doesn’t cite sources, so I don’t know where she gets the information that informs this ‘pattern’ from (other than her personal observations). But notice how easily it lines up to the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. In this quote, low-income families are characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality. People have multiple sexual relationships and complex webs of intertwined relationships, there is a pattern of young teenagers having babies out of wedlock, legal marriage and divorce are unnecessary legal formalities (and, therefore, the legitimacy of many children is dubious), and so on.

Dishonesty and Theft

Elsewhere, the mock NAACP application implies that African Americans are fundamentally dishonest, especially when seeking welfare assistance. It asks these two questions:

  • Number of Children Claimed for Relief Check
  • Give Approximate Estimate of Income: From Theft, From Relief, From Unemployment, If you have any income from any other sources explain

Again, the implications are obvious: African Americans are willing to lie on applications for welfare and to steal in order to make their living.

So let’s take a look at Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It):

Four months passed. Then the Christmas season came. Janice still hadn’t landed a job, but a couple of interviews looked promising. Ann’s friends were eager to collect gifts for the family to make their Christmas as bright as possible. The relationship between Ann and Janice, however, began to fray. Details about Janice’s past, about her friends who were in and out of her apartment, just didn’t line up… Christmastime revealed, unexpectedly, other pieces of Janice’s story – details that she carefully concealed. When some of Ann’s friends delivered their gifts, they encountered a houseful of other “angels” loaded down with wonderful, expensive presents for the girls. Hardly the scene of a struggling single-parent family just weeks out of a homeless shelter.2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 59-60

Or there’s this sentiment that Lupton attributes to Andy Bales, the executive director at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles:

Most panhandlers are not really homeless at all. Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kindhearted passersby and at the end of the day walk a block to their cars and drive home.3Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45

Like Payne, Lupton doesn’t cite sources so much as identify ‘patterns’ in his personal observations. But notice again how well this version of poverty lines up with the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. Low-income families – not all of them, of course, but enough that a pattern is formed – are more than willing to con and scam others out of their hard-earned money. If anything, they depend on the goodwill and compassion of strangers to keep their lifestyles going. Lupton isn’t alone in this opinion. This false narrative has become a popular one in American images of poverty.

Dependency, Entitlement, and Work Ethic

The final piece I want to look at is the idea that idea of a lack of work ethic and a sense of entitlement. The fake NAACP application states outright that the purpose of the NAACP is to transfer wealth from white people to African Americans. Besides the question about how much ‘applicants’ receive from relief and unemployment, there’s this sentence in the pledge at the bottom: “I believe that white folks should pay more taxes than us [n******] so we can get more welfare [and] bigger checks.”

I shouldn’t have to point out that it’s a common myth that charity and welfare foster dependency, create a sense of entitlement, and erode the work ethic of recipients. Here is Lupton again:

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.4Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37

Much of the case against charity seems to be based in a deep seated anxiety that once people start receiving assistance, they’ll never be in a position to stop; there will be a constant transfer of wealth from the ‘makers’ to the ‘takers’. One might suspect that there was a similar anxiety among the white supremacists who produced the fake NAACP application. To them, equality for African Americans meant lifting the African American community up and, therefore, pushing the white community down.

Race and Poverty

I’m not trying to suggest that Payne, Lupton, or any of the other people making the case against charity are themselves white supremacists. I suspect that they would insist that this rhetoric is obviously wrong  – both factually and morally – when directed at another race. But I am struck by the similarity of the rhetoric. It is as though the stereotypes of African American and low-income communities are interchangeable.

It’s not surprising that race and poverty are deeply intertwined in the American imagination. While there are more low-income people who are white than who are members of any other single race, poverty rates are higher – often much higher – among other racial groups. But there’s a something deeper going on here: blackness and poverty – especially ‘irresponsible’ poverty – are linked in the American imagination.

This link is what makes it so easy to transfer – consciously or not – rhetoric about African Americans (who are already imagined as poor) to low-income people (who are often already imagined as African American).

I would hope that if we saw this rhetoric being applied to African American communities, families, and individuals, we would immediately recognize it for what it is: racist, hateful, and ugly.

And I would hope that when we see it applied to low-income communities, families, and individuals, we would react in the same way. At the very least, its similarity to white supremacist rhetoric should cause us to respond with some skepticism.

Footnotes   [ + ]

On the Division between Charity and Justice

You’ve heard this one before:

Once upon a time there was a village that sat just past the bend in a river. One day, the villagers noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead and the village buried them. Others were sick and the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people, and more, and more. And every time, the villagers responded the same way. They pulled the people out of the river, buried the dead, and restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river became never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman went up the river to discover where these people were coming from. She found another village where the villagers were throwing their people into the river. She returned to her home village and organized her people, leading them against the village upriver. After a fierce battle, she and her people were victorious against the village upriver. There were no longer people being thrown into the river. Life in her home village returned to normal.

The first response by the village is charity. It solves an immediate problem without addressing the root causes. The problem is never solved, and charity becomes a constant, never-ending practice.

The second response is organizing for justice. It works to solve the cause of the problem and end the suffering.

Or so the story goes.

All parables simplify. This one simplifies in a way that creates a convenient distinction between charity and justice and obscures the deep connection between the two. And it does this by pretending that people fall into neat categories: the people being thrown in the river, the people throwing people in the river, and the people fishing folks out of the river; the oppressed, the oppressors, and the charitable.

The reality is that almost no one is in just one of those categories. Many of us, in one way or another, are in all three. We live in a world where we suffer from injustice. We live in a world where we benefit from injustice. We live in a world where we fight against the effects of injustice (and sometimes against injustice itself).

That reality is why I find the division between justice and charity… lacking.

When we favor justice over charity, we so often think that we are reforming the systems that those people – the oppressors – benefit from. We don’t always recognize that we are the ones who need to be reformed. Through justice, we hope to change systems.

When we favor charity over justice, we are reforming ourselves. Through charity, we hope to change our hearts. And with changed hearts, perhaps we’ll stop throwing people in the river. Perhaps we’ll refuse to benefit from systems that throw people in the river. And, of course, we’ll keep helping the people who are thrown in the river.

But maybe charity and justice aren’t in opposition. Maybe there isn’t a division between them. Maybe the attitude of charity – the deep love for every person as a precious child of a loving God – leads us both to help the people in the river and to stop throwing them in. Maybe a just world is one where our natural response to need is a charitable one: to meet that need.

Maybe justice and charity – once they’re realized – look the same.

Poverty and Other Problems

Last week, I posted a link to this post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money. The first comment on that post (the one at LGM) seemed like an excellent opening to a post I’d been thinking about for a while. Here’s the comment:

My Jesuit moral theology professor used to say “The number one cause of poverty in the US is not having enough money”, and then deal with the predictable chorus of counterarguments. He used to continue “Those are all interesting questions, but they’re other questions…”

Drove people nuts…1Davis X. Machina, April 4, 2016 (12:08pm), comment on Erik Loomis, “Stop Trying To Fix Poor People,” lawyers, Guns & Money, April 4, 2016

One of the biggest challenges to addressing poverty effectively is that we constantly try to address poverty by addressing other problems.

Poverty, pretty much by definition, is the condition of not having enough money. If you give enough money to someone who doesn’t have enough money, then you have solved her problem of poverty. She is no longer poor. She might have other problems, but the point is that those are other problems.

Unemployment is another problem. Financial illiteracy is another problem. Lack of education is another problem. As the Jesuit moral theology professor might say, they are interesting problems, they are problems that need to be solved, but they are other problems.

But anti-poverty programs spend their time and effort trying to solve other problems. Some do that in tandem with efforts to address poverty. Some make it a prerequisite to addressing poverty. For example, an anti-poverty program might require proof of a job search or a financial literacy class as a condition of receiving financial help. And this approach stems from the idea that poverty is ultimately caused by the moral or intellectual deficiencies of low-income people.

As Erik Loomis put it in that post at Lawyers, Guns & Money, we keep trying to ‘fix poor people’ instead of solving the problem of poverty. And that doesn’t work.

Emerging research suggests that poverty isn’t simply – or even mostly – the result of bad decisions made or inappropriate behaviors engaged in by low-income individuals and families. Poverty is a major cause of those decisions and behaviors. And that means that we may not have to address those other problems in order to address poverty. Instead, it may be the case that addressing poverty first will help with addressing those other problems.

It’s also true that some of those other problems might not even exist. Despite the stereotype that low-income people are bad at managing their finances, low-income individuals might actually be better at managing their finances than high-income people.

There’s plenty of research still to be done, but I have suspicions about what it will reveal. Philanthropy in America needs to make a huge cultural transition. We need to stop focusing on ‘fixing the poor’ – on the other problems that we’re so often told we need to address – and focus on poverty. And it may well be that the best and most effective anti-poverty programs will be simple: giving enough money to people who don’t have enough money.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

One of the biggest questions in addressing poverty is the question of why people remain poor despite the many public and private resources available to them. Among those who make the case against charity, the theory is often that something is wrong with the person who is poor: they are dependent, they are entitled, they lack a strong work ethic. The solutions proposed follow naturally from the diagnosis: limit charitable giving to emergencies, develop an entrepreneurial spirit, teach people the hidden rules of the middle-class.

In Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, economist Sendhil Mullainathan and behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir present an alternative idea: perhaps poverty is the reason that people remain poor.

Of course, Mullainathan and Shafir’s argument is deeper than that. Throughout the book, they look at a variety of kinds of scarcity – poverty (scarcity of money), busyness (scarcity of time), loneliness (scarcity of social connection), and so on – and discover that these very different forms of scarcity share an underlying psychology of scarcity. The person who is busy behaves the same way towards time that the person who is poor behaves towards money. Scarcity – “having less than you feel you need” – has “a common logic… that operates across diverse backdrops.”1Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Kindle Edition (New York: Henry Holt, 2013), 4-5

Through detailed and varied experiments and observations, Mullainathan and Shafir give us a picture of that psychology of scarcity. It’s a very different picture than that painted by advocates of welfare and charity reform.


There are three key concepts in Mullainathan and Shafir’s theory that I want to take a look at here: tunneling, bandwidth, and slack. Together, these three ideas create a portrait of the psychology of scarcity and help explain why people facing scarcity make the decisions that they do.

When people face scarcity – regardless of the kind of scarcity they face – they become intensely focused on making the most of what they have: they tunnel. This can have immense benefits. Many or us know the power that a looming deadline has to increase productivity. In the face of a deadline, we’re able to focus on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else and complete projects that had been languishing in the wilderness of ample time. Scarcity captures and focuses the mind in a way that is “unavoidable and beyond our control.”2Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 26

While this can be beneficial – a sort of focus dividend – it can also be tremendously damaging: “Focusing on one thing means neglecting other things.”3Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 29 Things inside the tunnel come into sharper focus while things outside the tunnel become invisible. The effect is that we make choices that are good in relation to the things we’re focused on even if they are bad in relation for things we’re not focused on.

A perfect example of this is payday loans. Mullainathan and Shafir use the example of Sandra Harris, an otherwise successful radio host who began taking payday loans after her husband lost his job. Each month, she would roll the loan over to make ends meet. She bounced checks, her car was repossessed, and she ended up deep in debt.4Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 105-107 The scarcity that Harris faced now created a tunnel that maintained that scarcity in the future:

That initial bill she could not pay created scarcity. She then tunneled on making ends meet that month. Within that tunnel, the payday loan proved eminently attractive. Its benefits fell inside that tunnel: it helped her make it through the month. The costs of the loan— the repayment and the fees— all fell outside this tunnel. The loan seemed to offer a solution to the problem she was fixated on.5Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 108-109

Tunneling leads us to see only the consequences of our choices that are inside the tunnel and to ignore the consequences that are outside the tunnel. We’ve all made choices that had immediate benefits and distant – even invisible – disadvantages: skipping the long-term benefits of a visit to the gym in favor of getting a project done before a pressing deadline, for example. This is a result of scarcity.


Scarcity causes us to tunnel, focusing on the challenges of our scarcity to the exclusion of other things. It captures our attention.

The result of that capture is that it limits our bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir use the idea of bandwidth as a shorthand for a variety of psychological constructs.6Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 Among these are cognitive capacity (the ability to solve problems, engage in logical reasoning, etc.) and executive control (the ability plan, control impulses, and so on).7Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 Scarcity, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, “directly reduces bandwidth.”8Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 People facing scarcity aren’t inherently less able to solve problems, retain information, or control impulses. They simply have fewer resources available to actually do those things.9Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47

This last point is especially important. Mullainathan and Shafir’s research showed that test subjects suffered a 13 to 14 point drop in IQ when preoccupied by scarcity. But that effect exists only when preoccupied with scarcity. People facing scarcity aren’t any more or less intelligent than people not facing scarcity, but they appear to have lower intelligence because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.10Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 52 Similarly, people who are facing scarcity show less self-control, but only when they are facing scarcity. They don’t have less self-control, but they appear to have less because their bandwidth is being taxed.11Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 55-56

All of this leads to a fascinating bottom line, a narrative that counters a lot of popular opinion about the capacities of the poor: “Poverty itself taxes the mind…  We would argue that the poor do have lower effective capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.”12Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 60 I’ll return to this idea shortly, since it has huge implications for how we address poverty. First, though, I want to look at a third key concept from Mullainathan and Shafir’s work.


Scarcity forces us to think in terms of trade-offs. Mullainathan and Shafir use the example of ordering a $10 cocktail while out at a restaurant with friends. When we think about it, we know that any $10 purchase means that we don’t have that $10 to spend elsewhere. When we’re not facing scarcity, however, we behave as though there is no trade-off. Because the cost is low, we act as though there are an infinite number of $10 purchases in our budget. If we’re on a diet, though, that drink suddenly has a trade-off: having that many calories now really does mean giving up dessert after dinner. Scarcity means we must account for everything.13Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 70-71

Scarcity creates trade-off thinking. But a lack of scarcity provides slack. We experience slack when we have a light week with holes in our schedule or when we have enough money that we don’t need track our spending. Importantly, this isn’t the time or money that we purposefully put aside for unforeseen circumstances; it’s not the forty-five minutes we schedule for a twenty-five minute drive or the money we have in an emergency account. Instead, slack is the by-product of abundance. It’s the result of not having to budget every dollar or hour.14Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 74-75

Here’s the important point: slack provides room to fail.

When we have slack, we can make poor choices. When we have a large financial cushion, we can make a seemingly infinite number of dumb $10 purchases without having to worry about the trade-offs we’re making. Someone who is poor, however, does have to think about those trade-offs; a bad $10 purchase has consequences for her that it doesn’t for someone who enjoys financial slack. And that leads to a vicious feedback loop. Because of bandwidth usage, people facing scarcity are more likely to make those poor decisions and less likely to have the slack necessary to avoid them.

Rethinking Poverty

If the arguments that Mullainathan and Shafir make are true and their theories accurate, they have huge implications for how we address poverty. As Mullainathan and Shafir write, we often assume that the cause of poverty is at least partially internal. Even if we admit that accidents of birth contribute to poverty, “one prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty.”15Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 115

Mullainathan and Shafir, however, suggest that “causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty— the scarcity mindset— causes failure.”16Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 115 The problem is that the poor aren’t just short on money. They’re also short on bandwidth. And those two problems are, of course, interrelated: being poor results in having less bandwidth available to address the roots of that poverty, and having less bandwidth available leads to making choices that keep a person poor.

This suggests that we might be able to address poverty by, well, addressing poverty. It’s a common idea among those making the case against charity that we need to address the mindset of poverty before (or alongside) addressing the material facts of poverty. But this understanding suggests that addressing the material facts of poverty also addresses the mindset. Reducing material scarcity helps us leave the scarcity mindset behind and behave in ways that will keep us out of poverty!

Mullainathan and Shafir provide an interesting example of this. Street vendors in Koyambedu market in Chennai, India, are often caught in significant debt: they borrow 1,000 rupees each day to buy stock, sell the stock for 1,100 rupees (a 100 rupee profit), and pay 1,050 rupees back to the vendor at the end of the day (the 1,000 rupee principal plus an astonishing 5% interest). The amazing thing is that each vendor has a small amount of slack that they use for tea, a snack, and so on. Let’s assume they spend about 5 rupees of slack each day. If a vendor spent that slack on inventory instead, she would be debt free in 30 days – thanks to the power of compounding – and effectively double her profit for the rest of her working days.17Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 123-124

As an experiment, Mullainathan and Shafir bought the debt of hundreds of vendors, letting them out of the debt trap.18As an aside, I should point out that 1,000 rupees is about $15. The direct cost of buying hundreds of vendors out of their debt isn’t huge. They then tracked the now debt-free vendors – and others – for a year. For several months, the vendors didn’t fall back into debt. They did exactly as we would hope. But one by one, they did fall back into debt. By the end of the year, they were back where they had started.19Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 133-134

But what caused them to fall back into debt?

“The core of the problem,” according to Mullainathan and Shafir, “is a lack of slack.”20Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 135 When the vendor encountered a shock bigger than the slack she had available – even if it was a foreseeable shock – she used her savings to cover it… and tunneling meant that she wouldn’t think about the future consequences of raiding those savings.21Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 135-136 Escaping debt – or scarcity more broadly – means more than being debt free, it also means having the tools necessary to deal with shocks.

Mullainathan and Shafir are clear that this doesn’t mean “that the only way to avoid scarcity traps is to have wealth large enough to weather all shocks… that the only way to solve the vendor’s problem is to give her even more money.”22Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 137, emphasis original But there’s no reason to suppose that this couldn’t be a solution. If the vendors had not only had their debt forgiven, but had also been provided with a cushion they could use until they had built up savings, would that have helped them avoid falling back into debt?

The more important point is that the vendors didn’t immediately fall back into debt; they didn’t waste what was to them a huge amount of money. Instead, they fell back into debt when they encountered a bump in the road. And that suggests that we really can help people by providing them with material or financial resources. Poor vendors in Chennai aren’t irresponsible, they’re consistently caught in situations where their attention is captured by the reality of scarcity. When we help them overcome scarcity, we also help them overcome the mindset that keeps them in poverty.


The understanding of poverty – and scarcity more broadly – provided by Mullainathan and Shafir runs counter to the narrative we’ve become used to. The poor aren’t dependent, entitled, or lacking a work ethic. They aren’t caught in a culture of poverty.

What Mullainathan and Shafir are proposing is a different direction of causation. It isn’t that irresponsible behaviors cause material poverty (though they may contribute). It’s that material poverty causes irresponsible behaviors. If we accept this direction of causation, we can accept that material assistance – contra those making the case against charity – really might be an effective way of helping the poor.

This counterintuitive narrative makes Scarcity a powerful book. But if that’s all that it offered, it would be easy to dismiss. Fortunately, Mullainathan and Shafir do offer something else. Scarcity doesn’t just provide a counter-narrative. It isn’t assertions and anecdotes, though it does contain both. It’s claims are backed up by real research in the forms of deep background reading, interactions with people facing scarcity, and numerous experiments.

They are embarking on a true science of scarcity. And in an era of opinions and assertions, that science is desperately needed.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

A few years ago, a book group at my parents’ church read Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). My parents were interested in my opinion, so they sent me a copy. I was surprised at what I read. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was my introduction to a genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming charity, the nonprofit sector, and a culture of poverty. This movement has no leadership, no centralization, no comprehensive line of argument. It’s a set of authors, speakers, and consultants who tell similar stories, refer to one another’s work, and suggest complementary reforms to how we address poverty.

Lupton’s book is one of the better known examples of the genre. In it, Lupton argues that charity should be limited to emergency situations because otherwise it hurts the person who receives it. Traditional charity fosters dependency, erodes the work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement among recipients. Instead of giving charity, we should help people in poverty through jobs programs, asset based community development, microcredit, and so on. Traditional charity cannot solve the problem of poverty. We need a different strategy.

Assertions and Anecdotes

It’s completely reasonable to question whether any given charitable organization – or even the charitable sector as a whole – is effective. That’s exactly the kind of question that any donor or volunteer should be asking about the organizations to which they give.

While there are resources for donors who want information on specific organizations – GuideStar and Charity Navigator are probably the best known – there’s very little information that help us answer bigger questions about which ways of helping people are more effective or whether the sector as a whole is doing what we’d like. This is in part because of ethical concerns. It would be terribly immoral, of example, to find comparable individuals or communities, offer assistance to one, and deny that assistance to the other. Similarly, it would be immoral to offer comparable individuals or communities different kinds of assistance for the purpose of figuring out which method is more effective.

So it’s not necessarily surprising that despite his assurance that he “examined broader aspects of charity” with the same intensity as “Louis Pasteur searching for a causal relationship between germs and disease,”1Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 Lupton doesn’t offer data on the effectiveness of charity. He offers assertions and anecdotes. Nearly every section of every chapter contains a story, and many of these stories make for compelling reading: we can sympathize with the father who is embarrassed by the fact that his children must rely on the generosity of strangers for their Christmas presents2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-35, or with the woman whose giving spirit is taken advantage of by a woman who she met at a soup kitchen.3Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 58-61

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and we should be careful about evaluating the entire charitable sector based on Lupton’s stories and the lessons he draws from them.

There are three major reasons that we should be cautious.

First, Lupton writes that when he began his Pasteuresque research into “broader aspects of charity,” he did so “under the microscope of [his] new awareness.”4Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 That awareness, though, was an awareness of the very thing he is investigating: it is awareness of “an unhealthy culture of dependency”5Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 and a broader toxicity of charity. His ‘research’ confirms what he already knew!

Second, and probably because of the first point, Lupton’s stories seem noticeably ‘thin’. For example, when he describes the Georgia Avenue Urban Ministry (now Urban Recipe) – which he calls “Georgia Avenue Food Co-op”6Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 53 – he ignores the complex model of service and community building in which they engage in favor of comparing its food co-op to the food pantry at Old First Church (which I suspect is also far more complex than Lupton’s few paragraphs suggest).

The description that he gives of the experience that led him to see ‘traditional models’ of charity as toxic is similarly thin. During the Christmas season of 1981, he was living in a community he was serving. He was having coffee with one of his neighbors when a group of guests arrived bearing Christmas gifts for the family. The mother answered the door and “a nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts.”7Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 32 During the visit, “no one noticed that the children’s father had quietly slipped out of the room.” 8Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity,32

From this experience, which Lupton described in two short paragraphs, he draws this conclusion:

[A] father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment… children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and is free.9Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 33

Obviously, Lupton knows more about this experience than he reveals. But he doesn’t suggest that he spoke to the family about this experience or their perceptions of it. Instead, he presents the event as though he was able to intuitively grasp how the father felt and why, what the mother was forced to do, and what message the children got. He simply knows that the father is emasculated by the charity and not by the economic system that works so well for this benefactors and so poorly for him. He simply knows that the children get a message of dependency and entitlement rather than a lesson in the value of sharing from our abundance that they will reenact if they’re more fortunate than their parents.

Likewise, returning to his stories of Urban Recipe and Old First Church, he is able to draw an amazing assessment: that the cost of the efficiency of Old First Church’s food pantry is human dignity and that by engaging in these “traditional models” of ministry we “develop toxic relationships.”10Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 54

From this descriptions, Lupton is able to draw large lessons that fit the needs of his argument. As with all of his illustrations, however, Lupton’s interpretation is possible, but not necessary. While it’s conceivable that his interpretations are right, he doesn’t do the work of showing us that they are.

Third, even when Lupton draws on other research, he does so uncritically. The biggest single example of this is his use of Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.11Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 3, 94-97. In the latter section, Lupton quotes Moyo three times and paraphrases her at least twice. There are no citations, footnotes, or end notes. While this is admittedly a personal pet peeve of mine, it’s worth noting that failing to cite sources does not contribute to trustworthiness. Dead Aid may provide some insights into the situation of international assistance for Africa, and rethinking international efforts in the development of Africa may be a good idea. But Dead Aid has been roundly criticized, not least for ignoring the broader colonial, post-colonial, and cold war contexts in which much of that aid took place. Lupton uncritically accepts Moyo’s conclusions without seriously engaging any literature that challenges his own arguments.

None of this is to say that Lupton’s stories or opinions don’t have value. These are good stories and Lupton has years of experience in urban ministry. His opinions are informed opinions. But Toxic Charity is not a memoir. Lupton is not simply sharing his experiences or giving fatherly advice. He is leveling serious charges against traditional models of charity; he is suggesting that those models actively harm the people that they were meant to help; he is recommending a substantial overhaul of the charitable sector (an overhaul, as we will see, that aligns with a particular ideology). Taking these charges and recommendations seriously requires more than anecdotes and gut feelings. It requires data and rigorous analysis.

Christ and Capitalism

Like several of the books that make the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. The subtitle of Toxic Charity is How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book isn’t just about how churches are failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. It is about how the church is failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. Given that, we might expect Lupton to spend some time considering what theologically and pastorally responsible charity might look like. But that thread is absent from the book.

That doesn’t mean that these concerns never appear in Toxic Charity. Lupton does write about the church. He writes about the ‘scandal’ of “religious mission trips”.12Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 5. There are further references on pp. 14-18 and 65-60 He refers to his own Presbyterian church.13Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 11, 65-66 He writes a section on “ministry entrepreneurs” and another on how “bad business equals bad ministry”14Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 18-26. He writes the already mentioned Christmas story.15Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-39 He shares anecdotes about and examples of church-based programs for the poor.16Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 51-61, especially. He looks briefly at the relationship between faith and trust.17Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 61-63 He laments the loss of a relationship with a church over poorly organized volunteering.18Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 70-75 He writes about what churches’ ‘mission portfolios’ should look like.19Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 75-78 And so on.

Lupton also refers to scripture and to Christian thinkers and leaders. Micah 6:8 receives the attention of almost an entire section of a chapter.20Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39-42 The Parable of the Judging of the Nations is name checked.21Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 40 He mentions and quotes Jacques Ellul,22Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 34 Gary Hoag,23Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45 Andy Bales,24Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45-46 and Ron Sider.25Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 46 Other, more subtle references lurk in the background.

So it isn’t the case that Lupton ignores the role of the church or Christian thought in charity. He approaches these things through the lenses of scripture and his personal experiences and he offers both compliments and criticisms of the church for its approach to serving the poor. But, like his anecdotes, his examination of charity from a theological or pastoral perspective is thin. Neither his criticisms of nor his vision for charitable activity are not rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, they are rooted in the ideology of capitalism.

Remember the core problem that Lupton has with traditional models of charity:

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.26Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37. The first portion of this quote is in related to international attempts to provide aid to Haiti, but Lupton applies the concept to all charity.

Lupton believes that the act of simply giving to someone as they have need creates toxic relationships and that healthy relationships are created when we “redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.”27Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38 Better to open a store where people who are poor can search for bargains or work in exchange for what they need than simply being given things from the abundance others enjoy.28Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38-39

And that’s not necessarily wrong. there’s much to be said for developing opportunities for people to participate in their economies. But Lupton places an enormous amount of faith in the power of “reciprocal exchange” or “holistic compassion.”29Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37 He seems to believe that directly including people in American-style economies is the key to helping them escape poverty.

Take, for example, his faith in the power of work. In a section that compares clothes closets and thrift stores,30Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37-39 Lupton makes much of the dignity of work: “our low-income neighbors would much rather work to purchase gifts for their children than stand in free-toy lines with their ‘proof of poverty’ identification.”31Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39 No doubt. But it never seems to occur to Lupton that the problem might be the line, the proof, of poverty, and the rules and regulations. Lupton places the blame clearly on the fact that the people in that line are receiving toys for free. Ironically, he seems to believe that the problem with gifts is that they are gifts.

His belief in the power of work is more problematic when he writes about hiring day laborers.32Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152-154 In an effort to clear a vacant lot of grass, weeds, and debris, he decided “to take on the project”33Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152 himself, with the help of some other labor. He went to Home Depot and randomly selected “two young Hispanic men.”34Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153 He agrees to pay them $10 for the day.35Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153. Assuming that they worked for a mere seven hours, that’s $1.43 per hour, a feloniously low wage since 1968.

Lupton uses this tory to illustrate two points. First, “Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility.”36Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152


Life offers no fulfillment without work. Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. And the original design of paradise pictures humanity at work… Clearing debris from a lot or running a corporation, mopping the kitchen floor or selling a piece of real estate. Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation.37Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 154

Lupton’s right that work is an invitation to participate in an unfolding creation, but he’s not telling the whole story. He’s right that the book of Genesis begins with God creating the cosmos and that the second chapter of that book tells us that “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”38Genesis 2:15, NRSV But Genesis also tells us that our work is cursed because of Adam’s sin:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.39Genesis 3:17-19, NRSV

The Bible – and Christianity as a whole – balances two views of work: work can certainly be a blessing and provide meaning, but it can also be meaningless toil we must engage in merely to get the basic necessities of life. We probably cannot put all work on a single spectrum from paradise to curse, but my guess is that running a corporation or nonprofit is a lot closer to the former than doing manual labor for $1.43 an hour.

Lupton doesn’t spend any time looking at the larger socio-economic structures that let some people have fulfilling careers as participants in God’s creative work and leaves other people with drudgery. Just as he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to give out gifts to the less fortunate at Christmas and others are in a position to receive them, he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to randomly select people in a Home Depot parking lot for a day of landscaping and others are in that parking lot hoping and praying for a day’s work at scandalously low wages. Lupton, quite simply, doesn’t question the socio-economic systems that allow some people to live in abundance and forces others to live in poverty.

The gospel, however, does question those systems. And it suggests that those of us who are fortunate enough to have more than we need should overcome those systems by sharing with those who do not have enough. Scriptural examples of this are easy enough to find: Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 16:1-13Acts 4:32-37, James 2:14-26, and so on. Despite Lupton’s apparent desire to help Christians respond to poverty in a more responsible way, a Christian response to poverty probably won’t be responsible to existing social and economic systems.


Like many of the books making the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. But it is not a Christian argument. Lupton’s argument is firmly embedded in an American version of capitalism: provide microloans, give people work, teach people that nothing is free. It’s not surprising that this book seems to be popular among American middle-class churches. It’s based in the idea that, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be relatively privileged by American systems of race and class, nothing needs to change. We can continue to benefit from systems that exploit the poor and assuage our guilt – if we have any – by providing some means for the poor to live better lives within that system.

And, of course, we can villainize practices that don’t play within the boundaries set by American capitalism. It isn’t that poor people are dependent because they are forced to depend on others. It’s not that they lack work ethic because most of their effort goes towards survival, which tends not to pay. It’s not that their ‘entitlement’ is merely the reasonable demand to things to which they are in fact entitled. No. Poor people are dependent, lack a work ethic, and have a sense of entitlement because of charity.

The deep problem with Toxic Charity is that this doesn’t have to be an either-or problem. Or, to put it another way, the either-or problem is on a different level. We don’t have to abandon food pantries and housing rehab programs and mission trips and clothes closets in order to have effective food co-ops and job training programs and local businesses and microloans. We don’t even have to have the former restricted to ‘real’ emergencies while only the latter are available for the chronically poor. Someone can receive some things as gifts while working for others. Most poor people do. Most people (period) do.

But at another level, there is a choice. Christians, at least, do have to choose whether we will live by the standards set by Christ or those set by the world. The systems that leave people poor – that, at times, make people poor – can be redeemed, but in order to be redeemed they must be reformed. And this brings me to my final criticism: Lupton has chosen the wrong target. It isn’t charity – and idea with its theological roots in the love of God for the world – that stands in need of reform; it is the global systems of domination. That includes capitalism.

So if you want to make microloans, by all means do so. If you want to start a co-op, do so. If you want to start a job training program or financial management classes or any of the rest of Lupton’s final suggestions, do so. But also expand your food pantry and your clothes closet and your toys for children at Christmas. Being generous in one way doesn’t mean we can’t be generous in many others.

Footnotes   [ + ]

(Re)Defining Poverty

When most of us think about poverty, we probably have a pretty clear idea about what we mean. Poverty means not having enough money.

Some of us might think about it a bit more. We might make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. We might make a distinctions between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. Some of us might think about poverty in relation to other issues. We might consider poverty and economic rights, poverty and social rights, or poverty and cultural rights. We might understand poverty as a symptom of bigger social and political issues.

But when you get down to it, even those of us who think about poverty a lot still think of poverty as not having enough money.

Which is why it’s noticeable when those making a case against charity define poverty in different way. And it’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that means that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.”1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 209-210 It’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that makes solving the ‘not having enough money’ problem less important than solving some other set of problems.

For example, when Ruby Payne defines poverty, she describes it as “the ‘extent to which an individual does without resources.'”2Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Location 194 While these resources include financial resources, they also include emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as other things like support systems, role models, knowledge of ‘hidden rules’, and coping strategies. Unsurprisingly, given her perspective and the quote in the previous paragraph, most of her work is focused on addressing these other deficits. In fact, because one of the ‘hidden rules’ of poverty is that “any extra money is… shared or quickly spent,”3Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Locations 387-388 giving someone money or things without addressing the other deficits would almost certainly be doomed to failure.

Or, to give another example, when Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe poverty, they look at the ‘brokenness’ of four key relationships. These are the relationships between us and God, us and the rest of creation, us and others, and us and ourselves. The brokenness of these foundational relationships leads to different kinds of poverty that affect our economic, social, religious, and political systems. In addition to material poverty – the kind of poverty we usually think of when we think about poverty – there is poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of stewardship, poverty of community, and poverty of being. All of these latter forms of poverty affect everyone: we are all poor.4Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 58-61 Of course, this means that we can’t address material poverty alone. In fact, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”5Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 61

How we define a problem affects the kinds of solutions we look for. Corbett and Fikkert actually point this out: If we define poverty as a lack of knowledge, we’ll try to educate the poor; if we define it as oppression by the powerful, we’ll work for social justice; if we define it as the result of the personal sins of the poor, we’ll attempt to get them to repent; and so on.6Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 52 And if those who are making a case against poverty are right – and poverty is something different than not having enough money – then they’re also right that traditional charity can’t be the right approach to solving the problem. At least, it can’t be the sole approach.

But that leads to a question. Is the idea that we need to reform if not abandon charity the result of coming up with a better definition of poverty? Or is the more expansive definition of charity – a definition that all but demands the reformation of charity – the result of a desire to reform if not abandon charity? In other words, what comes first: the way we define the problem or the solution we favor?

I suspect it’s a mix, and individual to each author who chooses to make a case against traditional charity. But it’s also something we need to look out for. When we – as individuals, as congregations, as organizations, and so on – start rethinking our definitions of poverty, are we doing that because we’ve actually come to a better understanding of poverty or because we’re looking for a justification for moving away from charity?

As for me, I think that poverty is related to a whole host of other social problems in very complex ways. Poverty is related to racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and so on. It’s not separable from those things. But I also think that when we talk about poverty we aren’t trying to talk about the entire network of social problems. We’re trying to talk about a single aspect: not having enough money.

Footnotes   [ + ]

The Case Against Charity

A few years 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 Yourself, Steve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Ruby 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.

The case against charity tends to come in three forms.

The case against giving. This case is based on 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.

The case against the nonprofit sector. This case states that the nonprofit sector is unable 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.

The case against poverty culture. The proponents of this case 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.

I don’t buy it. I believe that charitable giving really can change lives, that the nonprofit sector can be a powerful alternative to a for-profit sector that too often exacerbates poverty, and that poor people can generally be trusted to make good decisions when given the opportunity to do so. And I created this blog, in part, to make that case. The case for charity.

Defining Charity

The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be.

But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference.

Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity.

Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics.

First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us.

Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society.

Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized.

So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that does not discriminate based on the perceived worthiness of the recipient. Not everyone would agree with this definition. But I believe it captures the historical and theological origins of charity as a Jewish and Christian practice.

Charity Matters

There are Christian congregations across the country who pride themselves on their charity work. They run food pantries and clothes closets and soup kitchens. They take up collections for Church World Service or Heifer International or Operation Smile. They hose English as a Second Language classes and blood drive. in the appropriate seasons they collect food for community Thanksgiving meals or Christmas presents for low-income children or coats for the homeless. They send volunteers to other organizations. They are the hands and feet and words of Jesus. They are doing the work of the body of Christ.

They are doing charity. And that matters.

Charity matters because charity – God’s charity towards us and our charity towards one another – has been the heart of Christianity for almost 2,000 years. 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 the poor and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

Charity matters because it presents an alternative to 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.

Charity matters because it works. Personal experience and professional research both show that giving to the poor really does help lift people out of poverty. People who are poor tend to know what they need to improve their lives. When they are given the means to meet those needs, they tend to do so. Charity really does change the lives of recipients and donors. And the fact that it works is evidence in favor of the vision that charity proposes. And that is evidence in favor of the idea that I believe is at the heart of Christianity: that the cosmos is generous and that this generous cosmos reflects a generous God.

Charity is, perhaps, the greatest gift that Christianity – and here Christianity owes a lot to its Jewish roots – gave to the world. Charity matters.

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