The Shrinking Thanksgiving Basket

In some ideological quarters, it has become popular to assert that government should have scarcely a role in responding to the needs of the poor. The message has been pretty straightforward. Government: bad. Private charity: good. But now a new breed of critic is arguing further that the charities, too—even the worthiest of them—ought to be held in suspicion.

One of the more credible promoters of this view is Robert D. Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (HarperOne). Lupton is not just a true believer in the anti-government gospel, but also a charitable doer. He is founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies), an evangelical Christian community development agency in Atlanta’s inner city. His book, originally released a year ago, has now appeared in paperback—just in time for Thanksgiving.

During the holidays, the news cycles turn predictably toward stories about the deserving poor and the good causes that serve them well. Lupton and his publicists want the media to crank out a strikingly different story.

“In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate,” he declares at the start of the book. “What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”

The author points to such basic examples of charity as soup kitchens, clothing drives, and church-sponsored service trips. These are usually counter-productive, he asserts, because they breed dependency and “destroy personal initiative” as well as family structures.

The argument is familiar enough, when it comes to government social programs. But the follow-up is usually that private charities are the way to go, because they’re more responsive to local needs, or because they don’t use taxpayer money (although they often do). Lupton doesn’t go there.

He does allow that some charitable work is nontoxic and necessary—disaster relief being his chief example. And he speaks up for “community development,” including job placement and affordable housing in cooperation with for-profit developers. This aspect of his argument is reasonable, though not very interesting: Such efforts have become commonplace among private service organizations.

Beyond that, charity encourages “ever-growing handout lines,” Lupton writes. He calls for shuttering food pantries and replacing them with food coops that sell shares to the poor; canceling the clothing drives and setting up thrift stores. In his view, such draconian measures are in order because the poor will just use their Thanksgiving baskets and secondhand socks to bolster what he terms their “lifestyle poverty,” their thriftless, workless ways.

Lupton seems to believe that the American poor are almost unique in this way. For example, he puts in a good word for micro-lending projects in the Third World, but then questions their applicability to the United States. And the reason he gives is that in our country, “the welfare system has fostered generations of dependency and has severely eroded the work ethic.” The American poor “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” because of public and private largesse, so they don’t exercise personal responsibility.

I’ve ceased being surprised by things people say about the poor and the lower 47 percent of the economy. But part of what strikes me about Lupton’s critique is his lack of any discernible interest in the demographics of poverty—the facts, in other words.

The Poor Are Not One Group

For those pesky details, I called up Candy Hill (whom I quote in the November 18 edition of Our Sunday Visitor). She is senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, a national umbrella organization.

To start with, Hill told me that many who knock on the doors of local Catholic Charities do so for the very first time. And they usually come looking for food. Typically, they have lost a job, suffered an illness, or faced some other crisis. They can put off paying the utility bill or mortgage but cannot go long without eating. “We see them because they’re hungry,” she says, adding that elderly people on fixed incomes are also familiar faces at soup kitchens.

According to Hill, these people form a sizeable swath of charity recipients—the suddenly and temporarily poor. Lending them a hand doesn’t make them dependent. It usually gets them back on their feet.

A second subgroup consists of those with lifelong disabilities and impairments. “We help them reach their full potential,” said Hill, alluding to such efforts as job training for the tasks they’re able to perform, but Catholic Charities does so “with the understanding that they’ll never be totally independent.” They’ll always need help from both government and charities.

The third type of recipient cited by Hill is the chronically poor, in need of continual services. On the surface, they supply Lupton with his dependency thesis, although he draws little distinction between them and others in the fluid ranks of the poor. And they’re a distinct minority: Approximately 25 percent of those in poverty have been poor for three years or longer, according to a plethora of studies cited by Catholic Charities.

For these people, Catholic Charities offers what Hill described as a “continuum of care,” in which case workers evaluate their needs at various stages. Some typical services include job training, parenting classes, rental assistance, and prescription drugs for chronic illnesses.

But she is reluctant to assign even these cases to Lupton’s all-encompassing category of “lifestyle poverty.” She notes, for example, that a growing number of the long-term poor are living in homeless shelters and holding down jobs, sometimes two or three—their wages too low for rent. “They’re some of the hardest working people I know,” said Hill, who previously headed Catholic Charities of Monroe County in Michigan.

Contrary to the impression given by Lupton, charities that work with these people aren’t flush with cash. Contributions have continued to dip throughout the fragile economic recovery. As Hill points out, food pantries nationwide have been cutting back on bread loaves, soup cans, and other items tossed into food bags, even as the need rises with many families trying to scrape together a holiday meal.

Now, Lupton is offering one more reason, and not a particularly good one, to shrink those Thanksgiving baskets even further.

TheoPol will skip Thanksgiving week and return on Thursday November 29.

 

 

A Word About the Weather

As I write, I’m also packing my toothbrush and notebooks for a conference on Catholic social teaching and climate change, beginning tomorrow at Catholic University in Washington. The climate part needs little explanation, especially after the latest climatic disaster known as Hurricane Sandy. The part about Catholicism or religious faith in general is another matter.

Even TheoPol is not quite prepared to say that theological and moral perspectives are especially critical to discussions of climate change. One would think facts and science—the inconvenient truths, as far as we know them—should be uppermost in the public debate. But theology has a way of crashing parties, including the political ones.

For now, I’ll say there’s an important link between theological ethics and at least one aspect of global climate change: relationships between rich and poor nations. In their 2001 pastoral letter, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, the U.S. bishops zeroed in on four points about equity in these relationships.

1) Rich and poor nations alike have a responsibility to address the climate threat;

2) Historically the advanced economies have generated the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions known to cause climate disruptions;

3) In addition, wealthy nations have a greater capacity to lessen the threat of climate change, while many impoverished nations “live in degrading and desperate situations” that lead them to adopt ecologically harmful practices;

4) Advanced economies should bear the heaviest responsibilities for solutions to climate change. “Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty,” the bishops noted. “Wealthier industrialized nations have the resources, know-how, and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries,” and they should “share these emerging technologies with the less-developed countries….”

These too are inconvenient truths. Undergirding them are moral and theological principles, among them solidarity and the biblical “preferential option for the poor.” Of course, all this is tendentious drivel if you think global warming is a hoax. Which brings us back to science—until further word. …read more

Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …read more