Charity Skepticism

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

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

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

Call it charity skepticism.

Charity skepticism comes in three forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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   [ + ]

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

Second,

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.

Conclusion

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.

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