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The Smart Samaritan

Thursday, May 1, 1997

Most private charities don’t think very seriously about how to help the poor. Voluntary efforts will fail to improve on government welfare unless they learn from an earlier generation of poverty fighters.

Government programs of social assistance are on the wane. They still enjoy enormous political and budgetary clout, but they are losing intellectual and moral support. Voters are clamoring for retrenchment, and policymakers are pondering ways-such as tax credits and government grants and contracts-to create a larger role for private organizations in the welfare system. President Clinton, announcing a national summit on volunteerism to be held in April, said, "Much of the work of America cannot be done by government. The solution must be the American people through voluntary service to others." The future of social assistance, it appears, will be in the hands of nonprofits, churches, and volunteer groups.

This transformation will not, however, automatically create a better welfare system. The government system has failed because it has followed a defective approach to helping the poor. If the private sector maintains that approach-and it is in danger of doing so-we could end up with a welfare regime just as dysfunctional as the one we are struggling to replace. Before the country plunges into the brave new world of voluntary charity, we need to do some hard thinking about the right way and wrong way to give assistance to the needy. Here are some principles that charity leaders and volunteers ought to consider as they devise their own programs.

1. Unexamined giving leads to defective charity.

Upon seeing a needy person, a benefactor's first impulse is a desire to fill the need. We see a beggar on the street who seems hungry, and we give him food. We see a person who is homeless, and we give him shelter. This is "sympathetic giving": giving according to the sympathy or pity one feels for the plight of the needy person. The problem is that such giving tends to "reward" the plight: Instead of lifting the recipient to self-sufficiency, sympathetic giving reinforces his bad habits and undercuts his motivation to reform himself. In this way, it leads to dependency and an ever-growing demand for more giving.

Government programs are typically programs of sympathetic giving. Although they are sold to the public as a "hand up," they are-or almost invariably become-"handouts," that is, giveaways of goods and services based on the apparent need of the recipients. Hence, the programs inadvertently reinforce bad habits and wrong choices: losing a job because of drug or alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, not saving money, having children one cannot support, not striving to overcome a disability, and so on.

Modern charity workers and donors need a comprehensive theory of giving to replace this flawed doctrine. Fortunately, we do not need to invent it. The 19th-century charity theorists covered this ground thoroughly, and they have left us a clear account of their conclusions.

Earlier reformers insisted that sound policy requires more than pity toward the needy. It must also include tough-minded analysis. In 1876, American preacher and sociologist Charles Ames put it this way:

"The open hand must be guided by the open eye. The impulse of pity, or compassion for suffering, belongs to every well-ordered mind; but like every other impulse, taken by itself alone, it is blind and idiotic. Unable to protect itself against imposition, unable also to discriminate and adapt its relief to the various conditions of actual helplessness, it flings its resources abroad at haphazard, and gushes itself to death."

In many private charities around the country, this advice is disregarded. All too often, charity volunteers assume that if they are motivated by compassion, there is no reason to examine the long-term effect of their programs.

In Sacramento, California, a group of reformers started a homeless shelter in 1983 called Loaves and Fishes. The philosophy is pure sympathetic giving. As a staff member told me, "We have no requirements, no expectations. We don't expect people to be in treatment programs or attend certain meetings in order to be fed and to receive services here."

They have worked hard to give homeless people material things to make their lives easier. In addition to giving them morning coffee and a full-course lunch every day, the shelter provides them with free medical care, a library and reading room, free locker storage, free kennel service and veterinary care for their dogs, free pet food, free ice, a bank of free telephones, whist and bridge tables, horseshoes, basketball, and soft drink machines. Members of the staff are careful not to judge or criticize the lifestyle of those being helped, whom they call "guests." Nowhere have they posted advice or exhortation to improve behavior. There are no mottos over doorways, no Bible verses on bulletin boards, no posters urging people to get off drugs.

Not surprisingly, all these benefits and facilities lead to increased demand, even in good economic times. Now feeding nearly 1,000 people a day, Loaves and Fishes is attempting its third expansion-and is being opposed by many local residents who fear the open-ended growth of homelessness that the shelter is encouraging.

Many churches establish assistance programs like soup kitchens without exploring what anyone wants to achieve with this activity. Do volunteers want clients to depend permanently on the soup kitchen? Do they want recipients to get jobs? To learn good nutrition? To learn how to cook? To learn manners? To help run the kitchen? To experience spiritual growth? Until all these issues are carefully addressed, it is not possible to know how to operate a truly constructive program.

Several traditions underlie the failure to analyze the consequences of giving. For one thing, government welfare programs have given us a century-long example of thoughtless giving. Highly trained professional social workers have participated in and endorsed this vast system of handouts; who are we, say the ladies of the soup kitchen, to question the practice of blind giving, of giving without expecting anything in return?

Thinking About Giving

A suburban Washington church runs an assistance program for the homeless of the District of Columbia, giving them food, clothing, travel vouchers, and small amounts of cash. I asked one staff member, a social worker of wide experience with street people, what percentage of the clients of this program were either alcoholics or drug addicted. "Ninety-eight percent," she replied. She went on to explain how these clients were obviously in need of counseling, befriending, and inspiring--if anything at all could reach them--and that food and clothing were essentially irrelevant to their real needs.

Toward the end of the interview, an elderly middle-class volunteer came into the room bearing a carton of juice packets she was donating to the program. I asked her the same question about the percentage of clients who were drug-and alcohol addicted. "Oh, I would say 10 percent," was her reply. Clearly, someone is seriously misinformed about the clientele being served by the program. Perhaps it is the volunteer, perhaps it is the social worker. The important point is that issues like this must be raised before any program can supply effective assistance.

Every social assistance program needs and analytical component. Staff, board members, volunteers, and donors need to gather frequently to analyze goals and methods. Groups should have a one-hour meeting at least once a month devoted exclusively to this function. Questions to be discussed at such meetings should include the following:

  1. Who are recipients and how should our program help them?
  2. How do we know we are helping them?
  3. In what way might our program be harming recipients (or others)?
  4. How can we bring about more direct personal contact between helpers and helped?

Sometimes, misguided religious impulses are the culprit. Sharon M. Daly, the deputy director for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, declares that "the primary purpose of charity is not to reform the poor, but to bring us closer to God-to save our own souls." This view of giving is self-centered, downplaying the importance of finding out whether our gifts to the poor are really beneficent.

At my home church in Sandpoint, Idaho, I came upon a volunteer, a kind and worthy woman, distributing plastic bags to parishioners for a food drive. I asked her if she knew whether the food would actually help the people who would get it. She frankly confessed to having made no effort to find out who received the food, or why, or how it might affect their lives for good or ill. "That's not my job," she said. "All I know is I tried; my conscience is clear."

Religiously based self-sacrifice may be admirable, but it should not be carried on at the expense of the poor. If we say we care about the poor, then it is our duty to help them. We must shift attention from ourselves, as givers, to those we try to help.

2. Real charity attaches expectations to assistance.

Sympathetic giving is not the only approach to the problems of the needy. There is an alternative method: giving in exchange for some contribution or achievement of the recipient. This can be called "expectant giving," since the donor has something in mind that he expects from the recipient in return for the aid. The obvious example is work. When a beggar says he is hungry, the donor doesn't just give food; he asks for useful labor in exchange.

Expectant giving takes many forms, from simple exchanges of material things to subtle psychological transactions. For example, a healthy teacher-student relationship involves expectant giving: the teacher makes an effort to motivate and instruct the pupil, who is expected to work hard to master the material. The 19th-century charity leaders discovered expectant giving and made it the key to uplift. Homeless men who wanted shelter had to chop wood for several hours; unwed mothers in charity homes had to follow a strict regimen of training and domestic duties.

Modern charities are beginning to rediscover this principle. For example, many private programs that provide transitional housing for the homeless now require a self-help contract in which the client agrees to stay employed, save money, keep his quarters neat, and so on (see "One Nation Under God," page 16). Even government is attempting to embrace the exchange idea by putting work requirements in a few of its benefits programs. (Unfortunately, these have a tendency to be watered down or ignored as the program matures.)

Giveaways, then, are never "the best we can do." Even with slender resources, it is possible to create constructive programs of expectant giving, programs about which staff members, volunteers, and donors will feel enthusiastic. The giveaway approach is a warning sign of a lack of imagination, or a burnt-out staff, or volunteers held at arm's length from the people they serve, or an agency comfortably dependent on government subsidies. They almost certainly signify that leaders are not holding monthly meetings about the purpose of the program and whether it is really helping its clients.

Those who defend programs based on sympathetic giving-governmental and private-often claim that the giveaway is "better than nothing." The point cannot be conceded. The general effect of sympathetic giving is to enhance the viability of a dysfunctional-and therefore suffering-lifestyle.

There are exceptions, but sympathetic giving is generally harmful to recipients. This is the general principle that all the 19th-century charity theorists divined. This old truth may disturb us, but the path to sound policy requires that we grasp it. The routinized, unconditional giving of material assistance to strangers has to be seen as a vice-yes, a destructive impulse-not a praiseworthy activity.

Unfortunately, handouts have become so widespread that we take them for granted. In giving out medical care, for example, government never asks for any contributions or repayment. Private charitable clinics show that it doesn't have to be this way. At the East Liberty Family Health Care Center, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the staff practices "fee counseling." The bookkeeper meets with the client, explains the full cost of the service, and points out that the client has a responsibility to repay as much as he is able, within his means, and a payment plan is worked out. No proof of income or assets is required. Clinic staff report an extremely high level of compliance with these voluntary payment plans.

The Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago charges a minimal fee of $8 per visit, with a sliding scale of payment based on family size and income. For clients with no money, says co-founder Wayne Gordon, "we have a long list of jobs that need to be done." This is healthier all around. "The truth is that most people want to work. They want to give something in return for what they have received."

Sometimes, a giveaway program may offer no useful way to implement this notion of exchange. That's a revealing piece of information. It suggests that given its resources, expertise, and clientele, the group is operating in unpromising territory. It should shift to a helping program where it can effect an exchange. For example, a group of middle-class women running a food bank for inner-city drug addicts may find that charging for the food, or requiring work in exchange, means that there will be no clients. The conclusion should not be that a giveaway is "the best we can do." It should be that "we're out of our depth." They should turn their energies to an activity better suited to their talents and resources-perhaps organizing a baby-sitting club for low-income mothers.

3. Mentoring is the foundation of uplift.

In a materialistic age, we assume that money can buy anything, including the uplift of the needy. After spending many trillions of dollars, we are beginning to sense the inadequacy of this assumption. Material support may have a role to play in certain types of assistance, but it is not an engine of uplift. For most people deemed needy, the main barrier to economic and social success is not a lack of dollar bills; it is a lack of healthy values and motives. We need to teach children-and adults-to work hard, to spend their money wisely, to be honest, to stay away from drugs and alcohol. We need, in short, mentors-individuals who befriend, guide, and inspire the needy.

The unconditional giving of
routinized material aid
to strangers must
be seen as a
destructive impulse.

Mentoring is a complex, subtle task involving many emotional and intellectual factors. Government welfare systems have ignored it because its emphasis on personal relationships clashes with the needs of bureaucracy, and because it doesn't have material inputs and outputs that social engineers can measure and manage. For the charity workers of the 19th century, however, mentoring-called "friendly visiting"-was the primary technique of social assistance.

Seeing that it was crucial to get mentors into regular, businesslike contact with their charges, British charity worker Octavia Hill set up a system of housing management in which middle-class ladies served as managers and rent collectors in low-income housing projects. She explained her theory of mentoring in an 1880 letter:

"From wealth, little can be hoped; from intercourse, everything. That is to say, everything we have to give seems to communicate itself to those we love and know; if we are true, we make them truthful, if faithful, full of faith, if earnest and energetic, earnest and energetic. . . . Human intercourse in God's own mercy seems appointed to be the influence strongest of all for molding character."

Modern-day Octavia Hills have come forth in recent years to apply this old idea of putting helpers and helped into personal contact. In 1976, Virgil Gulker developed a program in Holland, Michigan, to put individual church members in contact with people who needed their skills and support. Gulker devised the system after he discovered that church members were being cut off from the needy. In his book Help Is Just Around the Corner, Gulker explains the problem: "The usual arrangements for helping the needy remove opportunities from church members, reserving those opportunities for a corps of professionals. . . . Church members are deprived of their privilege, their birthright, to minister 'to the least of these.' "

Moreover, Gulker says, too many assistance efforts focused exclusively on meeting people's physical needs: "We made it virtually impossible for them to achieve any level of self-esteem, because the helping experience was not designed to give them the help they really needed to become self-sufficient." Gulker's system for involving people in a direct personal way with those who need assistance-called Love, Inc.-has since spread to 102 towns in 39 states.

4. Helpers should feel proud of their clients.

All too often, social assistance is seen as a "sacrificing" activity, something unpleasant done out of a sense of obligation. Duty has its place in charity, but mainly as a spark plug, a motive for getting involved initially. In the long run, it is not a healthy drive, and it will not lead to a successful social-assistance program.

Once again, Octavia Hill illustrates the ideal. As her writings make clear, she took enormous delight in her activities as a volunteer apartment manager, and had great pride in her tenants. If helpers don't feel rewarded and enthusiastic about their clients, it is a sign that these clients are simply not being uplifted.

One of the most common sources of discouragement among staff members and volunteers is their involvement in a program of sympathetic giving. Helpers sense that they are only treating symptoms and not providing lasting help. And since clients aren't being uplifted, helpers find little to admire about them.

This point comes out clearly in Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow's in-depth account of several homeless shelters in the Washington, D.C., area. These shelters were run on the giveaway principle, with no significant effort expected from clients. Liebow was distressed to discover that many volunteers and staff members privately resented those receiving assistance. He recounts an incident in which several men at a soup kitchen complained that their soup wasn't hot. When Liebow took the bowls back to the volunteer serving the soup, she refused to reheat it. He brought the matter to the attention of the assistant manager, and was also rebuffed. "I don't know what they're complaining about," the assistant manager said. "This ain't the Waldorf Astoria, and they're getting it for free."

For the charity workers
of the 19
mentoring was the
main technique of
social assistance.

When a client at a women's shelter refused tuna casserole and asked for something different, a volunteer privately shared her frustration with Liebow: "Those seven people who were killed last week [the Challenger astronauts]-they gave so much to the world, and they died giving more. But these people, they give nothing. All they do is take and take and ask for more."

Although staff members and volunteers thought they were hiding their resentment, Liebow found that clients often sensed it, and, of course, were hurt. The overall result was tragically ironic. Volunteers and staffers wanted to help the homeless, but because their giveaway programs put clients in a bad light, the volunteers disparaged them and unintentionally impaired the clients' already fragile self-esteem. The situation resembles a family in which the parents don't demand that their children contribute to the household. The parents start to resent them for being lazy and selfish, which in turn makes the children insecure.

While visiting charities around the country, I have been struck by the correlation between the type of giving and the enthusiasm of workers and volunteers. In charities that run giveaway programs, participants tend to be weary and frustrated-and also rather secretive. They are often unwilling to talk about the program they serve. On the other hand, morale is high in programs that demand a great deal from clients. Staff members are so enthusiastic about such programs that they won't let an interview end.

5. Economic opportunity is the key to long-term independence.

When charity reformers gather for their discussions of strategies and purposes, they should avoid focusing on the things needy people may lack. Their plan may involve material assistance, but the thrust of their efforts should be on creating opportunities that let people fill their own needs. "I believe we can solve the problem of homelessness," says John Woods, a former executive director of the Gospel Mission of Washington, D.C. "But we need to stop asking what we can do for the homeless. The success of a homeless program hinges on what it enables the homeless to accomplish on their own."

Nearly everyone agrees that the opportunities the poor need most are jobs-not government work programs, but meaningful, economically justified work. A job is the greatest anti-poverty device known, for it serves three uplifting functions all at once: It provides income, it builds self-esteem, and it cultivates constructive personal habits like behaving responsibly and getting along with others.

Suppose that we are members of a reform group that has recognized this vital point. We decide that we want to engage in a job-creation program. We begin to explore the kind of business our charity organization should start. A landscaping firm that will help beautify the town? A restaurant that will serve low-income customers? A day-care center? Members are assigned to research these possibilities.

At the next meeting, they return with a somber picture. Yes, the poor do need jobs in these kinds of businesses, and yes, the services they would provide the community would be valuable. But running a business is a difficult challenge. It takes someone enormously dedicated and persistent, willing to put in long hours, someone who knows the technology, the market, and the suppliers, someone who knows how to motivate and discipline a work force. Our charity organization, say the researchers, has no one with this kind of expertise and commitment. If we tried to run the business ourselves, it would probably crash, throwing all the workers we intended to help out on the street.

At this point, many civic groups would give up on this idea and look for an easier, less demanding way to help the poor. But in so doing they ignore an astonishing fact: Although volunteers at most charities are not job-creation specialists, millions of Americans are. They already run millions of small businesses, including landscaping firms, restaurants, and day-care centers. The solution is obvious: Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, why not assist small businesses that already help the poor with both jobs and needed services?

What kind of services might be provided? Some answers come from organizations that have already gone into the business of helping business. In Milwaukee, the farsighted Community Baptist Church started a business development center in 1987 called the Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee. Its staff and volunteers help entrepreneurs develop their ideas, put them in contact with credit sources, and also lease space where start-up businesses can operate. Director Bill Lock reports that in the past eight years, the organization has helped 11 businesses, including a firm that provides elderly in-home support, a sheet metal company, and an electrical-products distribution company founded by a former welfare recipient.

Another way reformers can help small business is by providing loans. Ideally, the loans become a method of establishing personal relationships with owners, managers, and employees, so that charity workers can help businesses in many informal ways. They could be mentors, for example, encouraging wise business practices. They might also serve as peacemakers. Employer-employee relationships in small businesses are often stormy; mediators are needed to patch up disputes that hurt everyone.

Government, with its
indiscriminate dole and
cynical regulations,
is no ally of the poor.

Helping the poor in the 21st century will require us to profoundly rethink our theories of social assistance. For the past century, reformers have regarded business as the natural enemy of the poor, and government as their natural savior. We are now beginning to discern that both impulses were tragically misguided. Business is not the foe of the poor but the provider of the jobs, goods, and services they need to make their way up in the world. And government, with its indiscriminate dole and cynical regulations, is no ally of the poor. The next century of reform will turn the old models upside down, as reformers find ways to help business help the poor, and work to get government out of the way.