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Bob Lupton (Photo by Najlah Hicks/Genesis)

Book of the Year runners-up

2012 Books Issue | The wrong and right ways to help

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Over the past year we heard a lot about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, with many proclaiming and some actually believing that a wealth transfer from rich to poor would return us to Eden. If only it were that simple! Last year also a religious left ad asked, "What Would Jesus Cut?" It asked readers to support governmental programs such as "proven work and income supports that lift families out of poverty." If only such proof existed!

Still, that sentence suggests the right question to ask: What is proven and what is not? Veteran poverty-fighter Robert Lupton-founder of FCS Urban Ministries-gives a street-level answer to that question in Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help-And How to Reverse It (HarperOne). Lawrence Mead supplements that with a public policy overview, From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor (AEI).

Lupton's basic premise is that top-down charity seldom works. He offers an up-close example from the city in which he's worked for decades, Atlanta. There, 21 years ago, former president Jimmy Carter and a full-time staff of 89 launched The Atlanta Project (TAP) with the goal of eliminating poverty in the city. At the end of the decade an internal study criticized TAP for its top-down methodology, and a Stanford University analysis attacked TAP for spending $33.6 million to come up with its "greatest achievement": producing a new eight-page application form for social services.

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How to do better? Lupton summarizes the fundamental lessons he has learned: "Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations." He notes, "Anyone who has served among the poor for any length of time will recognize the following progression: give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency."

The way to avoid creating dependency is not simply to cut government's failed social programs and substitute religion-based charity, for many churches and individuals "embrace similar forms of disempowering charity through our kindhearted giving." Lupton notes that "religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible. Our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines. ... We converge on inner-city neighborhoods to plant flowers and pick up trash, battering the pride of residents who have the capacity (and responsibility) to beautify their own environments."

"FCS" in the title of Lupton's organization stands for Focused Community Strategies, and Lupton backs up every generalization with a focus on Atlanta experience. He writes of closing a clothes giveaway room and replacing it with a nonprofit Family Store, at which people could buy clothes priced inexpensively. He similarly closed a food pantry and created a food co-op where members leveraged $3 semi-weekly dues into $30 worth of groceries. Co-op members made and enforced the rules and selected the food they desired. Those who did not pay did not participate.

Lupton notes that some grumbled, because "those forfeiting significant portions of their dignity for the addiction of welfare (religious or otherwise) do not easily part with this dependency"-but most learned. For example, dads gained dignity when Lupton's ministry stopped an adopt-a-family gift-giving program and asked contributors to bring unwrapped gifts to the Family Store. Dads could buy them for pennies on the dollar and give those gifts to their children.

The Bible emphasizes both mercy and justice, and Lupton explains well their relationship: "Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs.

While academics like to theorize about new models, Lupton notes that workable models such as food-buying co-ops already exist, but the hard part is rethinking an entrenched giveaway mentality: It's easier to create a hunger-free zone than a dependency-free zone. FCS had partnered with many Atlanta neighborhoods, but before partnering with new ones FCS asks a series of questions-and only if the answer is an enthusiastic yes from local leaders will the ministry move forward.

Among the questions: Is capable, indigenous (or indigenizing) visionary leadership behind the effort? Does the plan emanate from local churches? Does the plan protect against displacement or reconcentration of lower-income residents? Does the plan promote interdependence rather than continued dependence? Does the plan attract new achieving neighbors into the community? Does the plan lead to economic neighborhood viability, as measured by its ability to attract and harness market forces? Is there a way we can bring more human dignity to the process of exchange rather than simply using one-way giving?

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