Toxic Charity – revisiting an important book

About eight years ago, I wrote this post based on my reading of “Toxic Charity,” conversations with the author and my volunteer work to help working homeless families. The book remains relevant today.

I have made reference on several occasions to a must read book written by Robert (Bob) Lupton called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt those They Help and How to Reverse it.” I had the good fortune to hear Lupton speak about his experiences and how he came to this view on toxic charity. To those who do not know his story, he felt called to move into the impoverished areas of Atlanta to live near and like the people he was trying to help. From this vantage point, he witnessed and gleaned a far better and more impactful way of helping people in need. His premise based on this first hand anecdotal evidence is well intended volunteers and donors often do more harm than good in their outreach.

In essence, they do for people what the people can do for themselves, both here and abroad. His mantra is we should help people climb a ladder, but do it in a way they can maintain their self-esteem and their efforts can be sustained. He notes that true charity should be reserved for emergency situations like Hurricane Sandy. A few examples may help.

– From the feedback from those being helped and his observations, it is far better to provide a discount store of donated goods which caters to those in need as customers. When clothes are just given away it creates an entitlement society and the relationship can be adversarial which is counterproductive to all parties. He told the story that everyone likes to find a bargain. So, why should we deny that opportunity to those in poverty. This will help people in need with budgeting and the pride in saving up money to purchase a good deal on something they need.

– Rather than giving food away, he has witnessed it is far better to have food cooperatives. They would have each family pay a weekly stipend such as $3 to join a food co-op. These funds would be used to buy discounted food to pool with the donated food. The co-op begins an association with others that usually proves fruitful with recipe sharing, neighborhood dinners, restaurant development, etc. It also allows the deployment of better food for the recipients.

– Rather than have parishioners donate time and energy on projects that are mis-prioritized, mismanaged and misimplemented, use the volunteers for more employment and entrepreneurial activities such as helping people set up a small business, learn a trade, understand a business plan or network to find a job. This will use the skills of the volunteers in a more impactful way. He also notes we should let the community leaders decide on what is most needed (community initiated), actually lead the efforts (community led) and allow time for mutual information sharing (how their faith is important to both giver and recipient).

– Find ways to invest in the community to improve on assets in existence. This Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is critical to leveraging what is there (such as a school, playground, golf course, clinic, etc.) and works well with the community. Schools for example, are critical not only to the education of the kids, but after school programs for kids and adults, and a place where communities can gather. He noted an example where a developer in Atlanta bought a golf course and improved the neighborhood around it using a 50/50 mixture of market based and affordable housing. The golf course provided jobs and recreation to these mixed income families and gentrified a run down neighborhood.

The charity I am involved with for homeless families follows his empowerment model. We try not to do for the families what they can do for themselves. The families receive rent subsidized housing based on their ability to pay, meaning they must pay a portion of the rent. They must also save money for their eventual exit from the program. We help them buy a car on more favorable terms than 23% interest, yet they have to pay for car, insurance and upkeep. They must work with our social workers to make better decisions, improve their education, attend career development and budget more wisely. We are helping them climb the ladder, but they have to do it. We cannot and will not push them up the ladder.

Lupton speaks of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” which builds off the Hippocratic Oath for Doctors and is as follows:

– Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

– Limit one way giving to emergency situations.

– Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

– Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

– Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

– Above all, do no harm.

One of the things I have observed about people in need is their network of people with connections or skills they need is very narrow or non-existent. In fact, homeless families or individuals may have exhausted their only network of friends and family. I often help friends or relatives of friends and family network to find a job or resource. Others would do this for my friends and relatives in need. Yet, who can someone in poverty reach out to except people who are also in poverty? So, church goers who sit in the pews every Sunday have an abundance of knowledge and connections that is better suited to help those in need. Following Lupton’s example, if we can provide more intersections of those in need and those who can connect the dots for them, more success would be witnessed. There would be more ladders out of poverty.

Lupton made a telling observation in his speech. We are a very generous nation of people. We donate billions of money and time to help, but what do we have to show for it? Poverty has increased. The key is to help people find the opportunities, the ladders out of poverty. We can look for ways to help them climb the ladders, but they have to do it to make it sustainable.

A few straightforward suggestions to fight poverty

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

The above quote comes from the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond. Its subtitle is also telling – “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” The dilemma is we have a poverty problem that stretches from urban to rural America. Yet, it manifests itself daily in the eviction courts of American cities and towns, whether it is from apartments, houses or mobile homes.

The book speaks of how fragile the rental community is regardless of race, yet the black community tends to have a higher rate of exposure to evictions in urban areas. Unexpected expenses, transportation problems, and tragedies can push people paying a very high portion of their rent over the edge and out the door. Ideally, 30% of family income should be toward housing and utilities. Too many of these folks are paying well above that percentage.

It should be noted that there are other drivers of fragility. Some have opioid and other dependencies. Some are fragile due to too many children that stretch the budgets of even the best planners. Some are in downward spirals with unsupportive landlords. And, many of those unexpected expenses that arise are healthcare related.

What are some suggestions to remedy these issues? Based on my experience as a volunteer Board member helping working homeless families and my reading, I would like to throw out some ideas for consideration.

First, we need to talk more about it. America has a huge disparity in distribution of wealth which is not talked about enough by leaders. Where and to whom one is born are greater predictors of success as the American Dream  has waned for too many.

Second, we need to fund more family planning efforts not less. There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. When family planning is funded and birth control access and education are increased, poverty declines, system health care costs decline and abortions decline.

Third, more mechanisms to reduce evictions need to be in place and funded. Crisis assistance funds show success in helping keeping the electricity on and, when funded, reducing the number of evictions. Stopping homelessness (or fragility) before it starts can make a huge difference and will have a positive echo effect.

Fourth, we must invest in impoverished  areas making them more suitable for families both with opportunity and resources. In their absence, crime and other poor influences fill the void.

Fifth, while I have concerns about the new Tax law with its impact on debt and heavy emphasis on the wealthy and corporations, a huge opportunity was missed when we could have added an increase in the minimum wage tying it to automatic increases due to wage inflation. I worry that less money than expected by the law’s drafters will end up in the hands of workers.

Sixth, we must address our opioid crisis in America. To be frank, cutting access to healthcare and mental care insurance benefits are not the answer. We must stabilize access and cost of healthcare, yet opposite measures have been taken in the past few years under the guise of political gain.

There are many more ideas, but these will help. On the investing front, many locations have seen success with using historical tax credits leveraging private money. There is a concept called ABCD (Asser Based Community Development) which shores up or repurposes an deteriorated asset creating jobs.

But, first we need to talk about this real and pervasive problem.

 

 

 

Gone to seed

We have a poverty problem in the United States. Too many of our declining middle class did not rise to the next strata, falling instead, to near poverty and into poverty. Yet, we do not talk about this problem enough. We have let their ladders out of poverty, go to seed along with their environment.

Poverty should be succinctly defined, as it is often misdefined along with simplistic diagnoses. Quite simply, poverty is the lack of money. The causes are many and complex, so the solutions must be holistic.

Some like to say it is due to lack of virtue. Some like to say it is due to lack of work ethic, while others may claim it is due to drug use or alcoholism. When I work with people in poverty, I witness hard working, often pious people. I see people with a lesser propensity to do drugs than general society.

If we recognize the simple definition of poverty as lack of money, we can focus our attention on providing ladders out of poverty. We can invest in the communities that have gone to seed, both with economic and social capital. We can start with redeveloping depleted assets. The term coined with a successful program in Atlanta is ABCD – Asset Based Comminuty Development.

ABCD could focus on repairing and not closing a community school, recognizing the during and after school value it offers. Or, it could be redeveloping a gone to seed golf course or empty textile or tobacco mill. Or, it could be repurposing a mall to be a school, church, charity or governmental building. Replacing or refurbishing blighted assets makes a huge difference.

Coupled with these investments must be education and career development, or social investments. Jobs and careers are scarce in too many areas. Opportunities must be introduced and nurtured to make them sustainable. STEM education, apprenticeships, trades skills are part of an all of the above tactical strategy,

But, we must be mindful of four negative trends in areas that have gone to seed – crime, opioids, food deserts  and single families. Community policing by people living in the community is key. Targeted help with the opiod epidemic is important. Better food choices must be available as they may not have a grocery market. And, we must have holistic sex education and access to planned parenthood tools and birth control.

What we cannot have is kicking tens of millions off health care insurance. We cannot reduce an already minuscule food stamps program. We need to think about improving the minimum wage.

These are just a few ideas. But, first we need to address what people in poverty lack – money.

 

 

 

Asset Based Community Development fuels growth and jobs

The concept of Asset Based Community Development is one that was spawned from redeveloping blighted areas around a community asset, be it a school, library, church or landmark. For example, a school is more than a place to educate kids; it becomes a community center for after school and evening programs. When the school becomes run down, the surrounding community usually does as well.

Yet, the concept very much applies to redeveloping towns, cities, regions and other venues and has for some time. When New York City subways were a haven for crime back in the 1970s, the city began a daily occurrence of repainting over graffiti. When people saw this, crime diminished as the belief was if the City cares this much about graffiti, they will care also about crime.  The subway was an asset that had to be redeveloped and maintained.

If used wisely assets that have been redeveloped or nourished can create avenues for renewal and growth. In Greenville, South Carolina, the downtown area was revitalized around its assets which include the Reedy River Falls. Now, downtown Greenville is a wonderful and quaint venue for tourism and business. In Durham, North Carolina, the run down American Tobacco Campus has been revitalized into a place of innovative business, housing and restaurant venues. The new ball park and performing arts center round out an attractive area of Durham replenishing a previously uninviting downtown.

In Richmond, Virginia, an old train terminal has been converted into a wonderful children’s science discovery museum. This has been part of a refocus in downtown Richmond building off its unique history to make the downtown area an inviting part of an area of discovery. In Atlanta, the areas around CNN have been revitalized with the new aquarium and Coca-Cola museum, and the area around the refurbished East Lake Golf Club was redeveloped with golf club as a centerpiece for jobs, housing development and education.

Charlotte, North Carolina borrowed from Durham’s success to revitalize an area of downtown to build a beautiful new baseball stadium across the street from a new park honoring the artist Romare Bearden. This is dovetailed by other building projects that continue to renovate downtown which had been started in the mid-1990s.

Yet, the greatest success in North Carolina is Research Triangle Park (RTP) which came to fruition back in the early 1960s. Sitting between three high-caliber universities (Duke, UNC and NC State), a park devoted to research, marketing and leadership was created that attracted new business. The area, cities and universities have thrived under the RTP vision which is being revitalized as we speak. Durham’s success above is a key part of the RTP revitalization efforts and Raleigh was just voted the best place for growth in the country.

I mention this today, as we lose sight of the value that co-investment in maintaining, refurbishing or reconstituting existing assets means for a community. These are just a few examples of the partnership between private and public money that has made our country what it is today. When we speak of cutting expenses, as we should consider, we need to know that we should also be investing and spending in other areas where growth and job creation can occur. So, across the board cuts are unwise, as in some places we should spend more. We should recognize our assets (or strengths) and leverage them as much as possible. If we don’t, it is opportunity lost.