Before Anything Else, They Are People in Need

If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that Puerto Rico is in crisis. While President Trump as tweeted attacks on the mayor of San Juan and other Puerto Rican leaders who have criticized the government’s response, FEMA and other agencies – both public and private – have been working to help the people of Puerto Rico. Whether the response has been adequate or not, untold numbers of people are waiting for food, water, medicine, power, and other necessary resources. It will take decades, perhaps even generations, to fully recover.

And because the need is so dire, many of my friends are reminding people that Puerto Ricans are Americans and that many are veterans.

And that’s true. Puerto Ricans are, by law, American citizens (even though residents do not have a vote in Congress and are not allowed to vote in presidential elections). And tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the United States military since World War I. If we are grateful for the service of American veterans, we are grateful for the service of Puerto Ricans.

But none of that matters.

All that matters is this: Puerto Ricans are people in need. Before anything else, they are people in need. That should be the sole criterion on which we base our response.

So go, donate. I recommend the United Church of Christ’s disaster ministries 2017 hurricane fund, which will support efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and wherever else help is needed. The reason I recommend them it simple: in a few months, memory will fade and other disasters will dominate headlines… and the United Church of Christ will still be working where help is needed today. The United Church of Christ provides the longterm support that is needed in disaster recovery areas.

WABE: Philanthropy In America Is Becoming ‘Ideological Arms Race,’ Author Says

Yeah, we’ve seen just a huge influx of resources to create charter schools and to push more choice within our public school system. What people are maybe less familiar with is the role of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and ushering in the Common Core. The Gates Foundation got behind the idea of the Common Core in a big way and more than any single actor in U.S. education really made the Common Core happen. That’s an astonishing achievement for private philanthropy. You know, that a wealthy couple like Bill and Melinda Gates can, through giving a few hundred million dollars, shape what is being taught to students across the country really underscores the power of private philanthropy in this age in which we live.

WABE: Philanthropy In America Is Becoming ‘Ideological Arms Race,’ Author Says

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   [ + ]

Scattered Thoughts on Tithing

My post on planning to give made me think about tithing: the Christian practice of giving the first ten percent of income earned to charity. I found myself going in two different directions on this topic. So, while my thoughts aren’t particularly organized, I want to take a post to lay them out.

On the one hand, tithing seems like a reasonable, achievable, and worthy goal. The post at ideas42 that I originally linked to pointed out that the average American gives about three percent of her annual income to charity, and believes that her neighbor ought to give about six percent. In other words, she believes that she should be giving about twice what she currently gives. Tithing would be an even bigger jump, tripling the amount of money going to charitable causes. That would be about $500 billion more dollars going to feed, clothe, house, educate, and care for people (among other things).

Moreover, for many people, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount to give. Yes, reducing our take home pay by ten percent would mean changing our lifestyle. But perhaps it would be beneficial to have smaller houses, eat out less often, own less expensive cars, buy fewer new clothes, and so on. This is especially true if it means that low-income families would have houses, food, transportation, clothing, and so on.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is in a position to tithe. For some people, ten percent really does represent a significant portion of their income. But, for those of us who are in a position to entertain the idea, working our way towards tithing can be a good thing.

On the other hand, giving should encourage generosity, and tithing seems to – at least sometimes, as in the header image to this post – create a ceiling instead of a floor. We can come to believe that once we hit the ten percent mark, we’re doing enough, and we can say to the next person who asks for help, “No, sorry, I’ve already done my part.” We can come to believe that, as the sign says, “10% is good enough for Jesus.”

The problem, of course, is that ten percent is that ten percent is not good enough for Jesus. The Biblical narrative is clear that Jesus demands no less than everything:

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:33-34)

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus demands that we sell everything we have, give our money away, and live in destitution. What Jesus means – and I can go into this more another time – is that our lives should show that we don’t care about money. We shouldn’t be counting our way to ten percent and marking the task completed. Instead, we should give generously; perhaps even foolishly.

Tithing is good when it’s a starting point. Tithing is good when it leads us to always ask what more we can do for our brothers and sisters who are the least of these. But it’s bad when it becomes an accounting tool or a task we can get out of the way.

And that’s how I think the principle of tithing – even if we’re not concerned about a percentage – can be good. Rather than striving for ten percent, our average American, who gives three percent, might ask: what needs to change so she can give four percent next year? And, after that, so she can give five percent? In other words, tithing and percentages and all such things can be a tool for growing in generosity until she doesn’t care about percentages, but gives freely to people who are in need.

Planned Giving

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this link to an article from the folks at ideas42. Here’s the key point:

On average, survey respondents indicated that people should give 6.1% of their income to charity. This recommended level of donation is more than double the amount that people in the U.S. actually give…

…One factor stems from the fact that people are rarely, if ever, prompted to think about how much they currently give or how much they want to give overall. As a result, people often end up donating by happenstance or in response to direct appeals, sometimes giving much less (or more) than they’d actually like to. It’s similar to saving money. Unless you are prompted to set a savings goal or are enrolled to automatically save a percentage of your income each month, you may end up saving less for your future than you want to.

In other words, people think that they should be giving more to charity than they are. And a big reason that people don’t give as much as they think they should is because we don’t plan. We don’t think about how much we are giving, how much we’d like to give, and how we bring those amounts closer together.

I’m sure this is true in my own life. I don’t know what my family used to give, but since we started doing our budgeting in You Need a Budget (we use the free version 4), I know that we average around nine percent of our spending going to charity. And the biggest contributing factor to that percentage is that we budget for giving. We maintain a few different charitable line items. We put money in them every month. We give out of them regularly.

When fundraising professionals talk about planned giving, we usually mean gifts in the form of bequests or complex financial instruments. But all of us can benefit from planning our giving. All of us can benefit from thinking about how much we want to give and setting that aside as we make our budgets. All of us can benefit from saying, “This month I will give this much.”

I urge you to try it. You’ll make a different in your own life. You’ll make a difference in other lives.

Being Stingy Doesn’t Work

Last week, I shared this post from Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls. I excerpted this quote from it:

Budget Testing allows a larger nonprofit to be able to grow, while smaller, grassroots organizations continue to struggle. Getting 10K, while great, is not nearly as helpful as getting 100K. With 100K, you can hire a full-time exempt person, an essential element in organizational growth. With 10K, you can’t do much; if you’re lucky, you may be able to Frankenstein some other sources of funding together to get a part-time person, or pay for other elements to help your program to limp along. It’s like telling a kid, “Because you’re so little, I’m going to give you a few cheerios. When you grow big and strong, I’ll give you more and better food.” The flaw with this argument is that kids cannot grow just by being fed a few cheerios every day. (Despite my 2-year-old’s insistence otherwise)

Le is talking about foundations and nonprofit organizations. Budget testing is his name for the idea that foundations should provide funding based on the size of the budget of the organization to which they’re giving. For example, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget can apply for a $100,000 grant, while a nonprofit with a $100,000 budget can only apply for a $10,000 grant. His problem with this approach is that it means that the large organizations can get grants that are big enough for them to grow (e.g., $100,000 can hire a new staff member) while small organizations are left in the dust (e.g., $10,000 has to be combined with other resources in order to help a program).

And that’s all true. Small organizations need more help in order to grow into large organizations and make a greater impact on their communities.

But this quote also made me think of how we approach poverty as a problem.

Often, we place severe restrictions on who can receive help. A person must be struggling with immense poverty in order to receive help. Even if they qualify, the help they get isn’t enough to make a dent in their poverty. Someone who needs a little help can’t get the help that they need; someone who needs a lot of help can only get a little. It’s like we’re trying to do the least that we can to make it look like we care about the problem.

The reformers – those authors and speakers making the case against charity – try to justify this approach.

“If we give people more than this,” they say, “they’ll become dependent. They’ll become entitled. They’ll lose their work ethic. We don’t want our helping to hurt. If anything, we should give less.”

The problem is that being stingy doesn’t work. Solving a little bit of the problem doesn’t solve the problem. Forcing poor people to cobble together support from dozens of government programs and nonprofits doesn’t solve the problem. Inventing reasons to provide less doesn’t solve the problem. Asking poor people to work harder doesn’t solve the problem.

Many of us in the nonprofit sector are quick to see that stinginess doesn’t work when it’s foundations being stingy with us. So why are we so willing to implement it when it comes to the people we serve?

A Short Word on Church Grants

A surprising number of churches – sometimes churches that otherwise have very little money – provide grants to nonprofit organizations. I know this because I write a dozen or so applications for these grants every year. And having filled out a few dozen grant applications, having answered many questions about mission and vision and impact, and having attached all of the required supporting documentation, I had to ask: is this really the best way for churches to be managing their mission budgets?

Let me give an example. I recently submitted a grant that, in addition to a few pages of questions about the purpose for which the funds would be used, required: a current operating budget, a recent audited financial statement, a list of current funding sources, documentation of nonprofit status, a recent annual report, a list of members of the board of directors with affiliations, and copies of brochures. The final document was 32 pages long and about a quarter of an inch thick. The size of the grant being requested? About $5,000.

And while I was putting this all together, I was asking myself: is this committee really going to read the financial statement? Are they going to compare funding sources? Are they going to evaluate the affiliations of our board members? Is all of this information really going to help them compare the organizations applying for grants and make a decision?

I suspect the answer is: probably not.

Here’s my experience. The churches who give in response to my grant applications tend to be churches who would have given anyway: they ask me to submit an application, other groups in the church give, and so on. The grant application is documentation for a decision they’ve already made. We’re either an organization that they support or an organization that they don’t. And while there are many things that might convince a church that doesn’t support us to send some money, a grant application usually isn’t one of them.

I don’t know why churches – especially those that aren’t among the few that manage large foundations – require grant applications. I suspect that it’s a signal to their congregations that they’re very serious about how they use their mission money. They aren’t just giving money away. They review financial statements, they evaluate board membership, they know about other funding sources, they have Robert Lupton’s Oath for Compassionate Service in their criteria. The mission committee is doing very serious work. They’re as thorough as a community foundation or a government agency.

Look at see: there’s paperwork! This application is 32 pages long! It’s a quarter of an inch thick!

As you might have guessed, I’m not convinced this is a good way for most churches to make decisions about giving.

First, I don’t think that most mission committees have a strong method for evaluating and comparing all of this data. This is especially true when it comes from different organizations taking different approaches to solving different problems under different circumstances. I have nothing but respect for church mission committees, but I doubt that their well equipped to take on a task that even professionals at foundations find challenging.

Second, I don’t think that churches want people like me spending our time on these grants; and I really don’t think that they want staff at smaller organizations – organizations without dedicated fundraising staff – doing so. The size of many church grants means that it’s likely to be smaller organizations applying for them. I don’t think that the churches want the executive director of one of those organizations to spend six or eight hours writing answers to questions and assembling supporting documents. They want that executive director to be fulfilling the mission of their organization!

So what can churches do instead? Select the organizations that they want to support… and support them! Better yet, pick the organizations that they know – the places where members volunteer, or where they go on mission trips, or who send guest speakers to your Lenten program – and send money. Easy.

Now, I get it. Sometimes we worry about whether our money will be used well by an organization. Sometimes we worry about whether an organization will spend our money on the wrong thing. Sometimes we worry about whether an organization will be around in a few years. If you’re worried – whether you’re a church mission committee or an individual – pick of the phone or send an email. I promise, any nonprofit worth your gift will be happy to answer your questions.

Just please help us spend less time filling out forms and more time doing the work you want to support.

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