Frank J. Batavick | Columnist
The U.S. is a generous nation. Giving USA 2013 estimated that contributions by individuals totaled $228.93 billion in 2012. Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy found in 2007 that 24 percent of a person’s annual donations occur between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. During this time charitable appeals and donations enter warp speed, motivated by the spirit of the coming holidays and nudged along by the end-of-year calendar and what Uncle Sam considers deductible under tax law.
Additionally, many soup kitchens plan special meals for their clients at Christmas, and volunteers for church “Adopt-a-Family” campaigns collect and deliver toys and clothing to the needy in their communities. The aura of all this should make one feel warm and fuzzy. But what if I was to tell you that much of this assistance is poisonous to the people it is designed to serve?
That’s the message of “Toxic Charity,” a 2011 book by Robert D. Lupton, and one my wife and I were tasked to read before we went on a church mission to Kenya this past July. Lupton is an activist who has spent 40 years in Atlanta working with the poor, and the lessons he’s learned over this time are counter-intuitive to anyone in the charity business. Simply put, a good deal of the money donated to assisting the poor, whether they be in Westminster or Haiti, is wasted and actually hurts the people it is intended to help.
Lupton’s philosophy can be summed up pretty simply: “Whenever we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.” The goal should be to transition people out of poverty, not to encourage them to stay there.
There should be no real hunger in South Jersey. There are many soup kitchens and pantries that provide adequate sustenance to the poor. However, soup kitchen meals may be free, but the cost in participants’ self-esteem and self-reliance is enormous. And what’s worse, these meals do nothing to incentivize recipients to change their plight in life. If nothing else, free meals merely enable the unemployed to stay in this state and the substance abusers to continue their ways; saving any available cash for their next bottle of “Jack” or “bundle” of drugs instead of a burger at McDonald's
“Adopt-a-Family” programs at Christmas certainly offer psychic rewards to those who buy, wrap, and deliver the presents, and churches like to quietly boast how many unfortunate families they serve each year. However, the recipients who then play Santa Claus to their children are left feeling like failures as providers.
Of course, aid is still essential in times of natural disasters when people have lost their homes and livelihoods. But over time, those affected need to be weaned from assistance. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. We should not still be assisting its victims because no one there can now claim victim status. To continue aiding them only encourages a culture of dependency and destroys initiative.
It should be noted that I am not lumping the developmentally and physically disabled into the “undeserving and harmed-by-charity” category. Nor do I mean to include the recent immigrant or those who have just lost their jobs and are seeking help to tide them over. These populations should receive every ounce of support we have to offer.
Now, I know what you are probably thinking, especially if you remember your Bible. What about the message of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ command to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Well, that certainly applies to the exceptions noted above. But for the others, remember Jesus fed free loaves and fishes to the masses only once; not on a daily basis.
So what’s the answer? Perhaps our local soup kitchens should adopt the model established by aging rocker Jon Bon Jovi at his JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, NJ where the poor are offered 3-course meals. The restaurant’s manifesto states, “… our menu has no prices. You select what you like and make the minimum donation ($10.00)…. If you are unable to donate, an hour of volunteering (help prepare the meal, set the tables and bus them, wash dishes, etc.) pays for your meal.” Now $10 may be a bit steep for some folks, but $5 or even $3 should certainly be affordable for clients. Most do have some discretionary resources, as their cars, smart phones, cigarettes, and elaborate tattoos and piercings easily attest.
For “Adopt-a-Family” campaigns, churches should open “stores” for the needy in church basements and accept small, token payments for the donated items. Things shouldn’t be given away for $.50, but a price of $3.00 for a new doll ought to be affordable and make the purchasers feel like they had some worth as parents; able to provide.
Harsh? Yes, but essential if we are to offer the needy a present they crave and deserve as human beings- their self-respect.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.