Race and Charity Skepticism

This post is based, in part, on this post from 2016.

Not too long ago, I wrote a book called Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church). If you haven’t read it, you should. You can buy a copy here.

One of the challenges of writing a book is that some of what I wanted to say just didn’t make it in. Books have a limited amount of space, and I couldn’t cover every topic that I would have liked to. And one of the topics that I couldn’t cover was race. So I took an old post that I had written on the topic, expanded on it, and produced this post. This isn’t as refined or well-cited as what’s in Radical Charity, but I think that it outlines the relationship between system racism and charity skepticism.

Race and Charity Skepticism

In 2016, I sat down with a friend who was a pastor in Mississippi in the late 1950s. I was visiting him because he had a stash of documents from that time, including newsletters from a nonprofit organization that I wanted to digitize for preservation. But we didn’t spend our time together looking at old newsletters. We spent our time looking through his collection of extremely racist materials — from flyers to letters to the editor — that were produced by the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens’ Councils, and ordinary white citizens. My friend had spent his career on the Mississippi Gulf Coast fighting against that racism, but he kept these reminders of what that community was like when he was there.

One of his most impressive pieces was a mock NAACP membership application produced by a White Citizens’ Council. What made an impression on me was how much the rhetoric the Council was using against African Americans in their community mirrors the rhetoric that charity skeptics use to describe people living in poverty. It was a powerful reminder of how deeply intertwined race and class are in the United States. In a very important sense, race and class are two forms of the same thing.

At its core, charity skepticism is concerned with class. I don’t just mean that charity skeptics are worried about people who live in poverty (especially ‘generational poverty‘). I mean that charity skeptics believe that there are real differences between people who live in generational poverty and people who do not. For example, Ruby Payne writes that the main difference between generational poverty and situational poverty is a difference in attitude. According to Payne, people who live in generational poverty have an attitude of entitlement: they think that society owes them a living. Meanwhile, people who live in situational poverty — people who are from the culture of the middle class but simply don’t have any money at the moment — have an attitude of pride to the point that they often refuse charity. And charity skeptics discriminate against people who live in poverty and favor those who live in the middle- or upper-class. In doing that, their rhetoric towards people who live in poverty echoes racist rhetoric towards people of color.1Ruby K. Payne, Philip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc, 2009), Kindle Edition, Kindle locations 699-701.

In this post, I’m going to look at a few claims about black people made by this mock NAACP membership application and compare them to claims made about people living in poverty made by charity skeptics. Specifically, I’ll look at the claims about family structures, a willingness to use dishonest means to get money, and a sense of entitlement. Then, I’ll write a little about the overlap between race and class in the American imagination.

Before I do that, I need to be clear about something. I am not suggesting that charity skeptics are consciously racist. I don’t think that they attend cross burnings or white supremacist rallies. Instead, I am making a more subtle case. Like the rest of us, charity skeptics are embedded in a complex and insidious system of white supremacy. And one characteristic of American white supremacy is that it casts people of color — especially people who are Black or Latinx — as poor, regardless of their actual wealth. That means that racist rhetoric lends itself to talking about who actually do live in poverty, regardless of their race. In a sense, charity skeptics are appropriating racist language to talk about class. And that simply reinforces the interrelation between race and class in the United States: it makes it easier to imagine that people of color are poor, and that people living in poverty are people of color.

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In Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne and her coauthors write about family structures among people living in poverty versus those structures among members of the middle class. They even provide diagrams. The middle-class diagram is a traditional family tree. The husband, his first wife, and his second wife, are at the top; children and marriages are below; grandchildren below that; and everyone is connected by nice, straight lines. The generational poverty diagram is centered around a matriarchal circle, with lines and curves going off at weird angles. Those lines and curves represent live-in lovers, various husbands (along with their other wives), children, and so on. The message is simple: middle-class families are simple and clean; lower-class families are messy and complicated.

This echoes the language of the mock NAACP membership application I mentioned earlier. Like many membership applications, it has places to indicate marital status and number of children. Of course, it’s also characteristically racist. The options for marital status are ‘shacked up’, ‘making out’, ‘worn out’, and ‘trying’. Similarly, there are places to indicate the number of children claimed for welfare, the number of legitimate children (if any), and the number of children fathered (if known). These parts of the form are trying to signal that Black family structures are informal and messy, in contrast to nice, clean, simple, proper white family structures.

It’s obvious that Payne’s family ‘tree’ portrays low-income families in a way that is similar to how the mock application portrays Black families. The important question is: why does she choose to show her low-income family this way? Traditional ancestral charts are perfectly capable of showing divorces, affairs, informal relationships, and illegitimacies. If anything, Payne’s convoluted chart just makes things more difficult to understand. Instead, she uses that diagram for another reason. Both Payne’s family ‘tree’ and the mock application describe certain family groups using language that is otherizing. They portray a group of people — people living in generational poverty in one case, Black people in the other — as different from a ‘normal’ group. Payne’s almost unreadable diagram tells us that people living in generational poverty are different from the middle-class people she portrays as normal and normative.

But Payne isn’t using her diagram to make the point that people living in generational poverty are different from people in the middle-class. By the time she gets to this diagram, she’s already spent three chapters telling her readers that they are different. Instead, I think two deeper things are going on here. First, Payne has already decided that low-income people are different, so she can’t quite imagine a traditional family tree describing their family structures. Or, if she can, then she can’t imagine that it would really capture the foreignness of those families. Payne’s diagram is a result of her own prejudice. Second, it primes the reader to think of those families as fundamentally different. When the reader imagines low-income families, he won’t think of a family tree that looks a lot like his. He’ll think of a convoluted mess. And that will put the same limits that Payne has on her imagination, on his.

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In Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton tells the story of Ann and Janice. Ann volunteered at a church’s soup kitchen and Janice — and her two daughters — needed help. Ann and her friends secured an apartment for the homeless family, talked with Janice about her abusive former marriage and an injury from a fall, supplied food and clothes, and helped the family in other ways. Eventually, Ann and her friends discovered that the details of Janice’s story didn’t add up. And the worst moment occurred when Ann and her friends were delivering Christmas presents to the family (a practice that Lupton advises against elsewhere): other people were there doing exactly the same thing. Janice had been running the same scam on many tender-hearted and compassionate people!2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 58-61

The point to this story is that relationships built on need are rarely healthy. Janice knew that her story would cause some people to help her. And according to Lupton, she knew that it was much easier to sell her story to kind people than it would be to work towards self-sufficiency. Janice really was in a crisis, but the help she received made it easy for her to live in that crisis and discouraged her from ever leaving it.3Lupton, Toxic Charity, 60-61

In a way, this story is an extension of something that Lupton says earlier in the book. When Lupton asks whether people should give money to panhandlers, one of the people he quotes is Andy Bales, the CEO of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. According to Bales (at least, according to Lupton’s version of Bales), giving money is the least helpful way to help someone. In fact, many panhandlers aren’t even homeless. Most of them are grifters who make $300 a day, walk a few blocks back to their car, and drive home. Janice is simply one example of the homeless con artist, taking advantage of the kindness of others.4Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45

Again, this echoes the language of the mock NAACP membership application. The application asks for sources of income, and divides that income into three categories: income from theft, income from relief (presumably both private charity and public welfare), and from unemployment compensation. The application goes on to demand an explanation for any other income, like wages from a legitimate job. The racist implication is obvious: Black people don’t work for a living if they can avoid it; instead, they live as parasites on good hard-working white people. It bears a striking resemblance to the claim that Lupton is making, whether he means to or not: people living in poverty won’t work as long as charity and other forms of support are available; they’ll just live as parasites on the money that good hard-working employed people — probably middle-class or wealthy people — give them.

Of course, we know that Lupton’s and Bales’s impression of panhandlers and other people living in poverty isn’t true. A study of panhandlers in San Fransisco’s Union Square found that the average panhandler — a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority — makes about $25 a day. That’s a twelfth of what Bales claimed. He also spends most of that money on food. And we know from other studies that most households who receive government assistance have at least one working member. So the same question that we asked about Payne’s family diagram shows up here. If we know that people living in poverty are working — and still don’t have enough to meet their needs — then why paint them as though they don’t?

And the answer is similar. Both Payne and the racists who created the mock NAACP application wanted to otherize their targets; both Lupton and those racists want to delegitimize the programs and practices that help them. In the case of the KKK and the White Citizens’ Councils, they didn’t want help going to Black people, so they painted them as inherently lazy and ready to take advantage of welfare programs. In the case of charity skeptics, they want their readers to see charity and other cash transfer programs as ineffective, so they paint them as too tempting to take advantage of. In both cases, the programs and practices are illegitimate. In the racist imagination, that’s because they help the wrong people. In the skeptical imagination, that’s because they’re the wrong way to help.

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Charity skeptics don’t just work to otherize people living in poverty and delegitimize the programs and practices that help them. Skeptics habitually bring together otherization and delegitimization together in the idea that people living in poverty have a sense of entitlement, are dependent on the people who help them, and have a poor work ethic. And they double down on that idea by telling us that charity contributes to all of those things. For example, Robert Lupton lays out the cycle in Toxic Charity: charitable help to people living in poverty encourages a sense of entitlement and erodes the entrepreneurial spirit, the people who receive charity get comfortable with that help and shirk their responsibility to work their way out of poverty, and those people then need more charitable aid. According to skeptics like Lupton, the cure is worse than the disease.5Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37

Once again, this echoes the mock NAACP membership application. At the end of the application, the person filling it out is asked to sign a pledge that reads (though, obviously, I’ve made a couple of alterations),

I believe in equality of the n*****s and that they is better than white peoples. I believe that white people should pay more takes to us n*****s so we can get more welfare, bigger checks, and now that we has the Supreme Court and the U.S. Army on our side, the laws should not be changed no more. I promise to praise Eleanor [Roosevelt] and the Supreme Court and not snicker any more when white folks start crying over how we is persecuted — I know my rights!

Both the charity skeptics and the racists who created the mock NAACP application are making the same point: that their targets are either inherently parasitical or can be lulled into a kind of parasitical behavior or both. To put that more simply, they are both arguing that some group of people will take advantage of welfare or charity if they’re given the chance. And both have the same sort of solution: don’t offer welfare or charity to those groups (or, at least, don’t offer welfare or charity to those groups without strings attached).

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So, why isn’t this all in Radical Charity? Because I have an inkling theory about why the images that charity skeptics use about people in poverty (especially ‘generational poverty’) and the images that white supremacists use about people of color are so similar. But it’s only an inkling.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I’m not suggesting that charity skeptics are racist in the sense that they consciously support white supremacism. Instead there’s something more subtle going on here: charity skeptics are illustrating a basic fact about how Americans—especially middle-class white Americans—imagine race and class. In America, race is classed and class is raced. To put that another way, the ideas of race and class are so closely linked together in the American imagination that they are (almost) two aspects of the same thing.

For example, I would bet real money that if you asked a most Americans which group–white people or black people–is more likely to receive welfare benefits like public housing, or use programs like head start, and so on, a pretty good number of them would think that either (1) black people used more of those benefits or (2) that roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks did. In fact, I would guess that when most Americans imagine someone in line at the grocery store paying with an EBT card—and especially when they imagine the dreaded ‘welfare queen’ abusing that benefit—they imagine a person of color.

Those people would be wrong, of course. For most welfare programs either (1) roughly equal numbers of white people and black people use them, or (2) more white people use them than black people. Food stamps are one program where there are more white recipients than black recipients. But, in general, I suspect that Americans overestimate the number of people of color who receive benefits. We tend to see poverty—and, especially, the receiving of welfare benefits—as a black thing. We imagine poverty in terms of race.6Arthur Delaney and Ariel Edwards-Levy,” Americans Are Mistaken About Who Gets Welfare,” Huffpost, February 2, 2018, Updated February 5, 2018.

Similarly, we imagine race in terms of class. While people my age can remember wealthy black characters on television—the Huxtables from The Cosby Show and the Bankses from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air spring to mind—we can forget how revolutionary those portrayals were. I would again bet real money that when most Americans imagine a black family, they imagine a family in poverty or, maybe, the lower-middle-class; not a family in the middle or upper-middle class, let alone a wealthy one.

To put that all another way, and more broadly: I suspect that Americans tend to imagine people living in poverty (especially if they are receiving benefits) as people of color, and people of color as living in poverty. In the American social imagination, to be a person of color is, in some sense, to participate in poverty; and to be poor is, in some sense, to participate in being a person of color.

This leads into two arguments that I’m not going to sketch out here, but that I think there is room to explore.

First, that Americans see wealthy people of color as not-really-wealthy and middle class people of color as not-really-middle-class. Much like Payne would write that a person who moves from financial poverty into the financial middle-class without changing their culture, attitude, and mind-set remains mired in poverty culture, a person of color who is too far outside of poverty only appears not to be poor. I suspect that, in the imagination of many Americans, such a person is still masking a kind of cultural poverty if not a material one.

Second, and for much the same reasons, that Americans see white people living in poverty as not entirely white. And I think this might be because many Americans see cultures-of-poverty as cultures-of-color. Therefore, a person who is white and living in poverty (again, especially ‘generational poverty’) is, in some sense, a person of color.

Those are ideas I might explore another time. My point here is simply that the American imagination doesn’t draw a firm line between the ideas of race and class. And charity skeptics tend to play with descriptions of poverty that share a common ideological vocabulary with racist descriptions of people of color.

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In this post, I’ve explored a few racist attitudes towards black people and how they compare to attitudes that charity skeptics display towards people living in poverty. As I’ve written couple of times, I’m not suggesting that charity skeptics are consciously racist. Instead, I’m suggesting that many skeptical arguments draw from the same well of attitudes towards marginalized people in America. They are drawing on stereotypes that have been made about people living in poverty, people of color, and various marginalized people: their families are weird, they take our money dishonestly, they have a sense of entitlement, and so on.

And those stereotypes are dangerous. They are not ideas gleaned from actual relationships or rigorous research. They are the traditional stereotypes that we use to dismiss the real needs of real people, to deny those people political power, and to keep those people marginalized.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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