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Book of the Year runners-up

The wrong and right ways to help

Book of the Year runners-up

(Bob Lupton (Photo by Najlah Hicks/Genesis))

Over the past year we heard a lot about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, with many proclaiming and some actually believing that a wealth transfer from rich to poor would return us to Eden. If only it were that simple! Last year also a religious left ad asked, "What Would Jesus Cut?" It asked readers to support governmental programs such as "proven work and income supports that lift families out of poverty." If only such proof existed!

Still, that sentence suggests the right question to ask: What is proven and what is not? Veteran poverty-fighter Robert Lupton-founder of FCS Urban Ministries-gives a street-level answer to that question in Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help-And How to Reverse It (HarperOne). Lawrence Mead supplements that with a public policy overview, From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor (AEI).

Lupton's basic premise is that top-down charity seldom works. He offers an up-close example from the city in which he's worked for decades, Atlanta. There, 21 years ago, former president Jimmy Carter and a full-time staff of 89 launched The Atlanta Project (TAP) with the goal of eliminating poverty in the city. At the end of the decade an internal study criticized TAP for its top-down methodology, and a Stanford University analysis attacked TAP for spending $33.6 million to come up with its "greatest achievement": producing a new eight-page application form for social services.

How to do better? Lupton summarizes the fundamental lessons he has learned: "Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations." He notes, "Anyone who has served among the poor for any length of time will recognize the following progression: give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency."

The way to avoid creating dependency is not simply to cut government's failed social programs and substitute religion-based charity, for many churches and individuals "embrace similar forms of disempowering charity through our kindhearted giving." Lupton notes that "religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible. Our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines. ... We converge on inner-city neighborhoods to plant flowers and pick up trash, battering the pride of residents who have the capacity (and responsibility) to beautify their own environments."

"FCS" in the title of Lupton's organization stands for Focused Community Strategies, and Lupton backs up every generalization with a focus on Atlanta experience. He writes of closing a clothes giveaway room and replacing it with a nonprofit Family Store, at which people could buy clothes priced inexpensively. He similarly closed a food pantry and created a food co-op where members leveraged $3 semi-weekly dues into $30 worth of groceries. Co-op members made and enforced the rules and selected the food they desired. Those who did not pay did not participate.

Lupton notes that some grumbled, because "those forfeiting significant portions of their dignity for the addiction of welfare (religious or otherwise) do not easily part with this dependency"-but most learned. For example, dads gained dignity when Lupton's ministry stopped an adopt-a-family gift-giving program and asked contributors to bring unwrapped gifts to the Family Store. Dads could buy them for pennies on the dollar and give those gifts to their children.

The Bible emphasizes both mercy and justice, and Lupton explains well their relationship: "Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs.

While academics like to theorize about new models, Lupton notes that workable models such as food-buying co-ops already exist, but the hard part is rethinking an entrenched giveaway mentality: It's easier to create a hunger-free zone than a dependency-free zone. FCS had partnered with many Atlanta neighborhoods, but before partnering with new ones FCS asks a series of questions-and only if the answer is an enthusiastic yes from local leaders will the ministry move forward.

Among the questions: Is capable, indigenous (or indigenizing) visionary leadership behind the effort? Does the plan emanate from local churches? Does the plan protect against displacement or reconcentration of lower-income residents? Does the plan promote interdependence rather than continued dependence? Does the plan attract new achieving neighbors into the community? Does the plan lead to economic neighborhood viability, as measured by its ability to attract and harness market forces? Is there a way we can bring more human dignity to the process of exchange rather than simply using one-way giving?

Lawrence Mead begins his book From Prophecy to Charity with one basic fact: "Poverty involves more than low income. ... Long-term poverty or welfare dependency typically occurs because of the behavioral side of poverty that official statistics ignore. Serious poverty among the working-aged population is usually linked to unwed childbearing and failure to work."

Mead notes "the poor" are very different from what they were in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called one-third of Americans "ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished." Today, most of that one-third is decently housed, clothed in ways that inspire children around the world to imitate them, and often overfed (although sometimes still ill-nourished). But many among the long-term poor have not succeeded in building a stable marriage. Some are troubled by alcoholism and drug addiction. Many focus on short-term boosts rather than perseverance.

It's wrong to use those tendencies to place all poor people in one pile, because many have solid work and family values, and even those who don't have some justifications: Financial problems often lead to marital ones, and vice versa. Nevertheless, whether it's fair or not, those on a troubled behavioral track usually stay poor, and the realistic economic alternative is what Mead urges: "The adult poor must work as other people do. Poor children must get through school and avoid trouble with the law and unwed pregnancy if they are to get ahead in life. Progress against poverty, then, requires programs with the capacity to redirect lives, not just transfer resources."

Mead explores biblical teachings in his attempt to find what such programs need to achieve. He notes how in ancient Israel "expectations to do good rested on everyone, rich and poor alike." From Prophecy to Charity is deepest when it turns to the New Testament and describes well how Jesus "aids people in immediate, practical terms. ... Yet he does not concentrate on material need. ... He calls for no social programs, no redistribution." Instead, he meets their deeper needs.

No government program can meet the deepest needs of the poor, and that's why churches are crucial. Mead does suggest, optimistically, that government can encourage people with short-term perspectives to take low-paying jobs that will lead to higher-paying ones, if they prove themselves. He likes the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, which subsidizes low-paid workers so that the earnings of parents with children can increase by as much as 40 percent. Even EITC doesn't work when individuals are dead set against working-but when it does work, the reason is that it stresses work.

From Prophecy to Charity also notes that EITC illuminates the difference between American and European attempts to help the poor. Europe has decided to "tax the private sector more than we do. It also regulates the labor market more heavily, making it more costly to hire workers and more difficult to dismiss them." The United States, though, has proclaimed that "the best way to overcome poverty here is to go to work in available jobs, stay there, and move up. Government will also help you if needed, but it will not replace individual effort. The private labor market is our most important social program."

Where do we go from here? Mead rightly summarizes a main point in words so sound that I want to quote them: "Rather than justice, the proper rubric for today's antipoverty quest is charity. That is, we should be motivated to help the poor not because they have been denied some essential right but because God commands us to do so. Charity has a very different moral basis from justice. What defines it is not the consensus of the community about what is fair but rather what individuals think God calls them to do for the poor. The Good Samaritan rescues the man beaten by robbers not because his community expected this-indeed, it did not-but because of his personal compassion toward the victim."

Well said! We need a system of charity and challenge that can activate individuals within religious and civic associations to work intensively with welfare recipients. We need to ask those in "serious poverty" what Jesus asked the man who had been lying by the pool at Bethesda for 38 years and was unable to walk: "Do you want to be healed?" Some do not. Miserable as their lifestyles look from the outside, some are used to it. We need to push them out of their discomfort zones as we pull potential helpers out of their comfort zones.

Charity at street level

The hardest charitable question many urban Christians face on a day-by-day basis is whether to give to those begging on the street. Should we not give because we are likely to be contributing to someone's drug problem? Should we give because a cup of soup and a warm coat might be lifesaving acts?

Bob Lupton notes that we have no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship. Some of us may be in a position to offer an honest day's pay to someone willing to do an honest day's work, and spend the time needed to supervise. Some of us may have an hour to take a homeless person to a burger place, and (what's even rarer) the grace to use that time wisely to discern the real problem. Many of us, though, have work and family considerations, so it's often better to support a solidly biblical program that works with the homeless.

Lupton writes realistically about what many Christians experience: "Every once in a while we might feel an inner nudge to stop immediately and help a person, offering food or money or a ride. This may well be the intervention of the divine showing unconditional grace at a critical point in someone's life. Still, there is no way of knowing until the curtain of history is pulled back to reveal the unknowable."

Filling out the Top 10

Our Book of the Year, the two runners-up, and Charles Murray's Coming Apart (Crown Forum), to be discussed in a future column, make up four of the books on my short list of outstanding works of the past year. Here are six others in alphabetical order by author, along with the dates 
of their reviews in WORLD:

  • D.A. Carson
    The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdman's); May 5
  • Christian History Project, Volume 10
    We the People: A.D. 1600 to 1800 (SEARCH); June 16
  • Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
    What Is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway); June 16
  • William Farley
    Gospel-Powered Humility (P&R); May 5
  • Adam Johnson
    The Orphan Master's Son (Random House); June 30
  • Phillip Simpson
    A Life of Gospel Peace (Reformation Heritage Books); April 21

 

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.