There’s a story that I heard, of a miner, a family down in– it was in the Appalachia area and the church there really thought that they were doing a great deal because they would go in, they said they would pick the poorest families and they would take them Christmas gifts and turkeys and that sort of thing. So they did. They went to this family and they presented them with all the gifts and gave them to them and all the children had gifts; they had a hot meal on the table. The church was so pleased with what they had done, and then they left. And the husband just broke down and cried because he said, “You mean in this community, we are thought of as the poorest family in the community?” The shame that came with that, with the charity that had been given so lovingly out of the best of intentions, but it absolutely shamed him and it destroyed his life. I heard it from his son. He said, “It destroyed my father because he said he was so shamed in front of the rest of the community because they didn’t think that he was a person of worth that they had to take care of his family for him.”
There were a few stories from the Grand Rapids Press over the weekend that form data points pointing toward some depressing trends: a decline in charitable giving (especially to churches), supplanting of private charity by government welfare, and the attempt to suppress explicit Christian identity.
Here’s a list with some brief annotations:
- “Study reveals church giving at lowest point since Great Depression” (10/23/10): This is really a damning first sentence: “…congregations have waning influence among charitable causes because their focus now seems to be on institutional maintenance rather than spreading the gospel and healing the world.” For various reasons, people seem to increasingly see places other than their local congregations as the place where their charitable dollars ought to go. Overall, I think this is probably a bad thing, but it does show that there is some basic accountability inherent in the donor/charity relationship. That may not be the best way of characterizing the relationship between the individual member and the local congregation, but it at least has to be seen as an element of it.
- “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason” (10/23/10): As the headline states, there’s no good reason that state aid by government should be supplanting the help given by private local and regional organizations.
- “Should it be illegal to post ad seeking Christian roommate?” (10/22/10): What business does the government have regulating postings on a church bulletin board? The Alliance Defense Fund is helping out with the woman’s defense, and the words used by their counsel represents the case pretty well: “absurd” and “insane.”
In a recent article in World magazine, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky urged evangelical minister Jim Wallis to drop the pretense of being post-partisan. Olasky, World magazine’s editor-in-chief, went on to assert that (1) Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, received money from the foundation of secular-leftist George Soros, and that (2) Wallis had lent the Sojourners mailing list to the Obama campaign.
In an interview here, Wallis appears to deny these charges. But now former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has followed up with some additional findings in a new piece at NRO. The findings strongly support Olasky’s claims, and make it all the more unclear why Wallis would respond to them by denying them and calling Olasky a professional liar.
Richards has been keeping tabs on Wallis for a while now. In an October 2005 review of God’s Politics, Richards shows how Wallis sits squarely on the left and has even capitulated to the secular left on key social issues. The book review also examines Wallis’s questionable biblical exegesis as well as some of the economic fallacies that drive much of Wallis’s political thinking.
Wallis may mean well, but the big-government policies he advocates have been a wrecking ball to the very communities he seeks to help. An Acton/Coldwater video short examines why the left’s approach to poverty alleviation has done so much harm. It’s called How not to Help the Poor.
I have close friends here in Michigan who are out of work–talented, principled, hard-working people who are either unemployed or seriously underemployed. My heart breaks for them and for everyone eager to work who has been blindsided by the current recession. Unfortunately, government policies to help sometimes make the situation worse. A recent Detroit News story offers fresh evidence, evidence suggesting that Michigan’s bloated nanny state is creating perverse incentives in the labor market, incentives that are both economically and morally degrading:
In a state with the nation’s highest jobless rate, landscaping companies are finding some job applicants are rejecting work offers so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits.
Members of the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association “have told me that they have a lot of people applying but that when they actually talk to them, it turns out that they’re on unemployment and not looking for work,” said Amy Frankmann, the group’s executive director. “It is starting to make things difficult.”
Chris Pompeo, vice president of operations for Landscape America in Warren, said he has had about a dozen offers declined. One applicant, who had eight weeks to go until his state unemployment benefits ran out, asked for a deferred start date.
“It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Pompeo said. “It’s frustrating. It’s honestly something I’ve never seen before. They say, ‘Oh, OK,’ like I surprised them by offering them a job.”
Some job applicants are asking to be paid in cash so they can collect unemployment illegally, said Gayle Younglove, vice president at Outdoor Experts Inc. in Romulus.
State benefits last for up to 26 weeks.
The unemployed can then apply for extended federal benefits that increase the total time on the public dole up to a maximum of 99 weeks.
The federal jobless benefits extension “is the most generous safety net we’ve ever offered nationally,” said David Littmann, senior economist of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market-oriented research group in Midland. The extra protection reduces the incentive to find work, he said.
The solution isn’t to walk away from charity. The solution is to return the lion’s share of charity work to families, churches and local communities. This is charity with a human face, charity that can make important distinctions informed by local knowledge, charity that promotes human flourishing rather than dependency and dysfunction. It’s a change that will require governments to stop crowding into the sphere of private charity, and for families, churches and community organizations to prayerfully crowd back into charitable work they may have turned over to the government in decades past.
No system of charity is perfect, private or otherwise. And government-directed help has its place, such as in the case of some natural disasters. However, the evidence continues to mount that long-term, state directed charity leads to moral and economic disaster. It’s time to change.
A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.
John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”
“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.
Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.
Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”
One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.
So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”
The AP reports that of the roughly $379 million spent by the US government on relief efforts in Haiti, less than 1% has been in the form of direct government to government aid.
This has raised complaints from the Haitian president, Rene Preval, who says his government isn’t getting its fair share. According to the report, Preval spoke at a news conference and complained, “There’s a perception of corruption, but I would like to tell the Haitian people that the Haitian government has not seen one penny of all the money that has been raised — millions are being made on the right, millions on the left, it’s all going to the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).”
But is that really so bad? If it is the citizens of Haiti who need direct assistance, why should more of the money be routed through the Haitian governmental bureaucracy?
Undoubtedly the government is struggling to provide any modicum of law and order in the chaos of the last two weeks. And whatever money the Haitian government receives should go firstly toward providing that kind of stability within which aid workers, food suppliers, and virtuoso entrepreneurs don’t have to be so concerned with theft and violence.
And in any case, the amount spent by the US government thus far is a small percentage of the nearly $2 billion in aid that has been sent in to the disaster zone. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, private aid from America is running at about $470 million, topping the government’s contributions by nearly $100 million. Preval’s claims to a greater share of that aid money seem to not have much merit.
It isn’t the Haitian government that is the object of charitable aid; it’s the Haitian people, and that’s where the vast bulk of the money ought to be (and seemingly is) going. That’s also why calls for forgiveness of the Haitian government’s debts are so misguided, at least in the short term as the dead are still being pulled from the rubble.
Published today on National Review Online:
When I first heard the news from Haiti and watched the horrible stories on television, I had the same impulse I imagine millions around the world experienced: I found myself thinking of catching the next plane to Port-au-Prince to help in whatever way I could.
What was the basis of this impulse? It is our moral intuition, sometimes called the principle of solidarity. This is the recognition of ourselves in the other. We feel pain when others feel pain and joy when they experience joy; we slow down on the freeway when we pass an accident not merely for some macabre or prurient interest, but because we recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I.” We help others who are suffering because we would like to be helped in a similar situation.
And yet I had to ask myself the practical question: What would I actually do when I got off the plane in Haiti? I do not know how to set broken bones. I can’t fix mudslides. I cannot operate on limbs and eyes. Only after all these things were done would I be able to fit into the division of labor to authentically serve people.
I am deeply grateful for those who can do these things, and I am inspired that they are there. In fact, aid workers have been emphatic that the last thing Haiti needs right now is a massive influx of people bringing only their good intentions. Such a run on the country right now would increase the need for food, shelter, transportation, and more.
The impulse to help, to do anything — largely and understandably based on our emotions — is exactly what confuses our thinking about charity and economics. It is the confusion between sentiment and practicality, between emotion and reason, between piety and technique.
On the other hand, it would be a cold and spiritually dead person who sat back without any sense of emotion over this Haitian calamity. If we merely said, “We should just forget this place. It is a poor country, the infrastructure is not in place, they have been unable to accumulate capital . . .” — if we said only these things, we would be callous. And yet, we know that what has compounded the suffering in Haiti is not only the earthquake as such but the poverty that hindered the necessary preparation and at all levels of society.
The practical and the emotional are at war right now.
More generally, the fundamental problem in Haiti is not bad weather or natural disasters. It is a problem of economics. Haiti has suffered from various forms of dictatorship for many decades, which has eviscerated from Haitian culture a general sense of entrepreneurship and enterprise.
This is not to say that Haitians aren’t entrepreneurial. One need only observe Haitian immigrants selling goods on the streets of New York to be convinced of their entrepreneurial spirit. Rather, what has made Haiti as a culture resistant to entrepreneurship has been the inability of Haitians themselves to gain control their own lives by ridding themselves of government policies that have made the country dependent on foreign aid and powerful dictators.
We like to imagine that we could send our favorite things — such as cars, computers, and the best medical equipment — to help. But when there is no electricity and few sources for fuel, and when the roads can’t be used for heavy transportation, all our gizmos and products and conveniences become useless.
Nor is it the case that piles of paper money are going to be a magic cure-all. When there is nothing to buy, and when replacement parts are not available, and the retail- and wholesale-trading sectors cannot support an advanced economy, money alone cannot do much good.
Haiti needs practical help and generous charity right now — implemented intelligently, and with a keen eye for existing conditions. We need to support aid agencies that provide water and medicine. In the long run, we have to look at what Haiti needs to prevent such disasters and minimize their impact. What the country needs is economic development and a culture that can support such development.
We are a very long way from that, and this catastrophe has set Haiti back even further. However, this is an opportunity to build a society that is prosperous, industrious, virtuous, and free. The unromantic truth is that charity does not really ameliorate poverty. Rather, it provides a necessary and temporary fix for an unusual problem. What Haiti needs are the institutions that provide protection and cushioning in cases of emergency. Most of all, it needs to develop economically.
No matter how many of us leave tonight for Haiti, that process will take a very long time, and it can only be carried out by the Haitians themselves.