Toxic Charity: Chapter Two Wrap Up

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

The last section of chapter two is entitled Money and Partnership, and I’m skipping it largely because it is nothing more than another story along the same lines of the others we’ve seen: organizational or individual attempts to assist people through the simple act of giving invariably end badly – the recipients of that help become ‘dependent’ and are sapped of their work ethic – but if all goes well the organization or individual learns its (or his or her) lesson and operates on a different model that does not make people dependent or sap their work ethic. Familiarize yourself with this narrative. I suspect it will continue to appear.

At the core of this narrative is the culture of poverty. Remember the summary diagnosis Lupton gave in the first chapter: “Dependency. Destroying personal initiative.” (p. 3) This is the basis of the idea of the culture of poverty: there is something about the poor that keeps them trapped in poverty rather than breaking out of it.

Now, I want to be fair to Lupton, so there are two notes to make here. First, there is probably something to the general idea of a culture or sub-culture – or, at least, cultures and subcultures – of poverty. That is: within any particular culture, there are reasons that some people are poor and others are not and there are mechanisms that people who are poor will use to survive. Second, while there are those who will blame the poor themselves – they would say that people are poor because they have no work ethic – Lupton does not appear to be among them. While he has not yet addressed any reasons that people are poor, he has yet to blame the poor for their poverty.

Where Lupton places blame is on American – and presumably other Western and wealthy – charitable organizations and individuals. Charity, as traditionally practiced, does not make people work, take loans, start businesses, form neighborhood associations and so on. Or, to put it less, ahem, charitably, it does not encourage middle-class American economic relationships.

The question is: why should it?

Part of what philanthropy and charity do is help us realize visions of the world: how societies should be formed and maintained, what the basis of relationships should be, etc. However, philanthropy and charity do not always do this consciously or obviously: we do not always know the vision that is being realized when we participate in charitable acts. We do not, as it were, always know what we are doing, but we do it anyway. Charity, in other words, is ideological.

The problem that Lupton identifies is, of course, only a problem within an ideological framework that does not tolerate people getting something for nothing or, more accurately, does not tolerate certain classes of people getting something for nothing. We can see this fairly easily when we think about even something as philanthropic as micro-finance. The way that micro-finance  works – like all lending – is that one person must produce a return on what they are ‘given’ while someone else receives a return for the act of ‘giving’. It is the person who already has something to give who receives more without producing anything and the person who does not have enough who must produce in order to meet that return and bring about a benefit for themselves. The ideology behind such a practice does not tolerate the poor getting something for nothing (“It creates dependency!”, “It weakens the work ethic!”) while it clearly tolerates – indeed, may even be aimed for – providing the comparatively wealthy with a way to get something for nothing (“Make your money work for you!”).

In effect, I think, Lupton’s motivating ideology is the same modern capitalist ideology that we saw in The Non Nonprofit and in Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk. And the solution that Lupton seems to be proposing through his narratives – hopefully he’ll be more direct as we move forward – appears to be to extend that ideology to the poor. In other words, it is to replicate the mechanics of capitalism among those it has left behind, if not exploited, through charity.

So Lupton’s analysis of charity – both his assessment of the ‘problem’ of charity and his proposed solutions – are driven by a particular ideology. The question that arises is whether than ideology is a good one and, given that Lupton is ostensibly writing from a Christian perspective, whether it is compatible with the gospel. We will, I’m sure, return to this later. For now, I simply want to put the question out there as one that needs to apply not only to the effectiveness of the charitable vehicles Lupton prefers, but to the underlying cultural structures that come along with them.

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