Lupton comes to this topic with a great deal of experience. As founder and chair of Focused Community Strategies Urban Ministries, he has worked in the area of urban renewal for more than forty years. And he has some valuable insights, though as explained below, he seems to miss some essential points.
Lupton’s key message is that all too many well-intentioned aid programs never go beyond relief measures, and this hurts aid recipients. Churches and charities, he says, need to realize that “hand outs” are appropriate for emergency situations only; true development requires empowerment of aid recipients. What happens to aid recipients who receive relief aid on a long-term basis? Lupton asserts that such aid can stifle incentives for the recipients to help themselves. That is, recipients develop a sense of dependency and entitlement rather than empowerment.
Why do churches emphasize relief programs? Well, we Christians are aware of hunger and poverty and of our responsibility to alleviate it. But we are also busy with many other concerns and priorities in our lives and our communities, so we do something relatively easy. Relief work can be carried out without long-term commitments on the part of the donors. No long-term relationship between donor and recipient is needed. Relief work requires no effort to analyze and reverse the complex causes of the recipients’ needs.
Lupton’s arguments provide good food for thought. Are the outreach programs of our churches primarily a means of meeting donors’ desire to give of themselves (but not too much) rather than a genuine desire to lift the poor out of poverty? Should our churches do more to develop lasting relationships with the chronic poor and help them overcome their predicaments? Should we do more to help needy people organize themselves to advance their own development? These questions are worth asking, as uncomfortable as they may be.
But Lupton seems to overlook the following. First, long-term relationships require greater resources than relief work, and many faith communities--including my own--struggle to obtain enough resources to carry out our many ministries. Perhaps development work is beyond the scope of what many individual congregations can offer. Second, hard work and ingenuity are not always enough to enable one to be self-sufficient. For example, among households with a working-age, non-disabled adult, most who receive SNAP benefits (formerly, food stamps) have at least one member in the workforce. Walmart employees and adjunct professors are just two groups of workers who often rely on SNAP benefits to feed their families. Third, Lupton does not mention the effect of public policy. While working with individuals and communities to overcome poverty is important, we also need to work to change public policies that thwart the efforts of folks to dig out of poverty. The uneven distribution of resources and opportunity in our society makes progress far easier for some people than others.
Not surprisingly, Lupton blames our welfare system for stifling the work ethic of many in our society. Ironically, I’ve read that the welfare reform of the 1990’s (which pushed many welfare recipients into the low-wage workforce) was supposed to include job-training programs. However, those programs were deemed too expensive and hence never enacted. I wonder if Lupton would have supported such programs. So many people today seem to be stuck in the low-wage workforce, with no opportunity for affordable training to help them advance to better jobs.
On the subject of international aid, I strenuously object to Lupton’s assertion that our nation’s aid to Africa has been a waste, with current conditions in Africa worse than fifty years ago. Africa still has plenty of problems, and some of our nation’s aid indeed was misdirected. But such wholesale claims of Africa’s lack of progress are simply not accurate. Just today (August 6, 2014) the Holland Sentinel carried an opinion column, Bet on Africa Rising by Michael Gerson, citing the tremendous progress Africa is making. And Bread for the World President David Beckmann recently remarked, “Progress in Africa shows that we can end extreme hunger and poverty worldwide in our time.” (See http://blog.bread.org/2014/07/africa-leaders-summit-coming-to-washington-dc-aug-4-6.html.)
Bread for the World acknowledges that our foreign assistance programs are imperfect and indeed advocates for their reform. One of the reforms Bread has requested consists of a greater role for recipient communities to plan and carry out assistance programs. The Obama administration has taken this direction in its Feed the Future program, launched in 2009. Has Lupton noticed this improvement? Another reform advocated by Bread is the funding of development over several years at a time, so that more long-term projects can replace relief programs, which better lend themselves to year-by-year funding. Both of these reforms are consistent with Lupton’s insistence on the necessity of development to effect lasting change.
While I find Toxic Charity worthwhile reading, I fear that those who believe that poverty is primarily caused by lack of personal initiative can read it selectively. Though Christians may need to be reminded of the importance of empowering individuals and communities to help themselves, we also need to acknowledge that unjust structures sometimes thwart personal and community efforts, placing people in the awkward position of needing long-term relief.
Bread for the World works for justice for our hungry brothers and sisters, because justice is an essential foundation for alleviating hunger and poverty. No relief or development efforts can yield long-term results without justice. Bread for the World’s frequent advocacy of safety nets is not a repudiation of Lupton’s ideas. Rather it is a response to the failure of our leaders to provide adequate short-term support (in the form of relief measures) and long-term support (in the form of opportunities for advancement and just policies) for our struggling brothers and sisters. Let us continue to work together to realize a world in which each one’s labor yields abundant fruit.