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 third and final example that Lupton gives in support of this chapter’s thesis is an attempt by “a sharp entrepreneurial-type Christian businessman” to “make Kansas City the first hunger-free zone in the country.” (p. 97) The businessman’s plan seems incredibly complex to me, and I’m not sure I can adequately summarize it here. Fortunately, Lupton provides a description in a post on the FCS Urban Ministries website:
The technology and data are already in place, he said, that identifies every church member in the greater Kansas City area — names, ages, where they live, phone numbers, email addresses, employment status, what church they are members of. This information can be assembled and printed on plat maps of every neighborhood in the city, block by block, house by house. The maps will be distributed to all the churches so every Christian can know where every other Christian in their community is located. With their churches’ blessing and encouragement, church members would contact other church members who live on their block, get acquainted, organize food collections from their neighbors and take the food to various collection points for distribution to the needy. As churches get behind the effort — organize their parishioners, post the number of membership groups being formed, report the quantity of food being gathered — momentum will build and a contagion of compassion will spread across the city. Based on reliable estimates of the number of residents at or below the poverty line, the quantity of food that could be collected each month is, in conservative estimates, far in excess of the need.
While this seems like an incredibly complicated plan to me – essentially driving substantial cultural change through data distribution – Lupton was satisfied with the plan:
Every question got a reasoned response. The plan had massive logistical and coordinating challenges, but the costs were modest, and both human and physical resources were available for mobilization. In less than an hour of intense discussion I had become almost persuaded that Kansas City might well become the first hunger-free city in the country. (p. 100)
At the end of this question, Lupton had just one question left: distribution. We’ll return to his exact question in a moment, but the answer that Lupton received is telling: the businessman let him know that they needed to get the program going quickly, before another city took the idea and ran with it; the distribution problem could be solved on the way. Given the title that Lupton gives this chapter, one might suspect that the problem is that the businessman is trying to move too fast. In a sense, that’s true. But the reason that his speed is unwarranted is that he doesn’t have a critical piece of the plan.
After all, the businessman’s plan is to collect massive amounts of food – an amount “far in excess of the need” – and have it delivered to collection points for distribution. If he doesn’t have a plan to actually distribute the food to those in need, then he has, at best, half a plan.
The problem for Lupton, of course, is not simply that our businessman has only half a plan:
How would tons of collected food actually be reach hungry stomachs? Who would ensure proper distribution? Would this food be given away? By whom, in what quantities, under what circumstances? And for a free-food program, what safeguards would prevent multiple dipping, hoarding, reselling food for drugs? What would keep this program from fostering unhealthy dependency and becoming another entitlement program? (p. 100)
But doubling, even tripling, distribution outlets in the city would not address the dependency problem. Computer programs might reduce abuse of the system, but they would still separate people as “donor” and “recipient.” Computers could not reconcile alienated relationships nor restore damaged dignity. (p. 101)
The hard part is rethinking the entrenched giveaway mentality and restructuring an established one-way charity system. A hunger-free zone may be possible, but developing the dependency-free zone is the real challenge. (p. 101)
As I already said, the problem for Lupton is not simply that our businessman has only half a plan. It is that even if he developed a comprehensive system that was capable of collecting more food than required to meet the need and able to distribute that food to hungry people to make Kansas City into the first hunger-free zone in America if not the world... that system might still give people the idea that they were entitled to food and might make them dependent on it.
If this plan were realizable – if it weren’t half a plan – then it seems to me that demanding that it also meet Lupton’s ideological requirements out of the gate would be looking a gift horse in the mouth.