Helping people climb a ladder – a perspective

The following is an edited version of a comment on Hugh Curtler’s (a retired college professor of philosophy) post regarding whether we should help people in need or let them fend for themselves. I provide a link below to his post. I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton.

Lupton’s thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal. An easy example is he would advocate for food and clothing co-ops rather than giving the food and clothes away. People love a bargain, so let them maintain their dignity while they get discounted help. This dignity thing is crucial – people would rather not have to ask for help.

Note, we cannot push people up the ladder. They must climb it.  A social worker I have advocated with used to say “we walk side by side with our clients.” The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financially educated working with a social worker and attending required training programs. Our homeless clients had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income, which is threshold for housing risk. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after two  years.

As a community and country, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Is food on the table a right? Is a roof over the head a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. It actually is cheaper to provide housing to chronic homeless and partially-subsidized housing to those who are more acutely homeless (due to loss of job, reduction in hours,  loss of healthcare, problems with car, predatory lending on a car, etc.) than let them go to the ER or commit petty crimes and be jailed. People should know all homeless are not alike, so the remedies to help need to vary.

My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks. When I have spoken to church groups, chamber groups, rotary clubs, United Way campaigns, etc., I come across this bias which is firmly believed. Just last month, the US president announced curtailing a rule on food stamps which will put 3 million people at risk, as one man was able to purposefully game the system. Yes, there is a small percentage of folks that do that, but the significant majority do not.

What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit, tout is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need and keep people out of poverty. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g. Is it better to have a Medicare for All system, subsidize those in need or have a free market system only? A factor in this decision is many employers now employ a larger part-time or contractual workforce (the gig economy) to forego having to provide benefits. This is especially true in retail and restaurant industries.

At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great a disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell you we are out of whack as our middle class has declined and far more of them fell into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests. Doing away with the ACA and not expanding Medicaid are very harmful to rural areas, e.g.

So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. It is hard to fix what you do not measure. The group I was involved with would alter its model, if the numbers showed less success than hoped. What I do know is over 80% of the people we helped are still housed on their own after two years of leaving the program. In other words, they live without a subsidy.

Finally, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Having been a member of both parties, each party has some good ideas, but both have some bad ones, too. I do not care what a person’s party preference is or if he or she is more conservative or liberal than me  (I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive), we need to use facts and data to make informed choices. And, continue to measure the results making modifications, if needed.

Dilemma

A disproportionate response

What does this mean you may be asking? It has a couple of contexts. When I first think of it, I usually think of well-meaning people who want to help someone in need. A church or employer group may adopt a family who is going without. This is not uncommon around the holidays. Unfortunately, what happens is the family is over-provided for stripping them of any dignity that remains. Plus, neighbors who are in a similar boat, may ask why them? This is one reason I do not care for the “move that bus” show where they over provide for a family.

This may sound callous, but it is an example of what is called “Toxic Charity” as defined by Robert Lupton. In his view, charity should be reserved for emergencies. We should be transacting with those in need to help them climb a ladder. If we over do, then the family’s dignity suffers. He likes to ask churches, “Is what you are doing more for you or the people you are helping? If it is the former, then you may want to rethink your outreach.”

A former executive director of a family homeless agency calls these exercises a “disproportionate response” to a crisis. He said we need to help people in a sustainable way. The goal is for you to help them stand on their own. That is the premise of the family homeless services agency I have the privilege to serve with on their Board. We do not want to do for our clients what they can do for themselves.

The other context is when controlling a hostile situation. We are beginning a discussion where police officers have on occasion used force when it was not needed or when the crime they were apprehending the suspect for was not that serious. Recognizing the tough job they have, police officers need to be trained and retrained on the art of handling delicate and difficult situations. The predisposition to act with violence needs to be managed, so that it is not used as often as it is with men of color or in less strenuous situations.

Yet, part of the issue is using an aggressive manner to apprehend a suspect of a petty crime. There is a disproportionate response when a violent apprehension is deployed with someone over a petty crime. This is akin to chasing a runaway vehicle through traffic endangering others drivers and pedestrians for running a stop sign. The safest response for the community would be to forego the chase. This has to be part of the new paradigm where training can keep officers alert, but not predisposed to act with violence. There should be a difference when apprehending someone suspected of a burglary or murder versus someone selling illegal contraband like cigarettes.

We need to approach situations with an appropriate response. Some folks will say that a suspect who is gunned down is justified if they committed any crime. I find fault with that. Someone should not be killed for stealing candy.  Further, a child with a pellet gun should not be gunned down in less than ten seconds, when a man with a rifle threatening violence is talked out of it, as he is white and the child was black. The other key question is should someone shoot to kill every one? What happened to shooting to wound? I know in the movies they do this to keep a clean end to a story and to punish very bad people that we can see as bad through our omnipotent viewing. Yet, this should not be the case in real life as much as it is.

I recognize these contexts are very different, but I believe we should be thinking and planning how we should respond to various issues, whether they be someone in need or someone who needs to be apprehended. We need to be more proportionate in our responses. More people may be saved as a result.

Who is learning from whom?

As Anna said in the “The King and I” a movie and play where an English tutor is engaged to teach the children of the King of Siam, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” This is actually based on a true story of Anna Leonowns and King Mongkut, so the line has even more merit. I use this reference which I read this morning in a USA Weekend article called “Voluntary Volunteer” by Mo Rocca about this same theme. In the volunteer work with homeless families I have been blessed and privileged to do, one of our secret sauces to success is our Hope Teams which mentor the families.

I equate the two stories for the following reason. One of our requirements for our Hope Teams, which are almost entirely made up of the faith community, is to not witness to the families. You are witnessing by deed by trying to help, but cannot proselytize your faith to them as it can be off-putting. It did not take long for us to realize that the converse was occurring. Or, as our Executive Director used to say “Who is witnessing to whom?” The irony is these families who were forced into homelessness due to the loss of one of their jobs, reduced hours, healthcare crisis, car crisis, etc. held tightly to the only thing that could give them comfort – their faith.

Through this devotion in times of such great crisis and anguish, our faith community members would come away from the mentoring relationships with a renewed faith. They were learning from the people in need they were helping. I mention this as well, as there are some who believe that people are in trouble because they are less virtuous. Bob Lupton who wrote the book that all volunteers must read, “Toxic Charity,” lives among those he is trying to help. One of the key lessons Lupton shares is when one of those who had been helped lamented about a church bus coming to help do certain things. When Lupton asked why, the person said, please do not get me wrong. We greatly appreciate their help. Yet, I wish the helpers would ask us about our faith, so we can have a conversation around a mutual interest. He said some people with good hearts assume we are less pious because of our situation.

In the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us” by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, they address this misconception head on. The number one misconception about poverty is the following assertion – “poverty is the absence of money.” It is no more or less. West and Smiley define it this way to get away from a belief of poverty being due to less virtue. When people spend time helping those in need, the helpers come away with the learning that poverty has nothing to do with being less virtuous.

I took some time off between jobs last year and did some tutoring of two fifth graders. While tutoring them in math, I came away with as much as they hopefully did. They both were English-as-a-second language citizens who moved here from countries in Africa. One girl lived in-house with ten people and three generations. The other girl lived in a house with seven people and three generations. These two young girls had a heavy role in household chores, both cooking and cleaning, to help the breadwinners. So, imagine trying to study as a fith grader when you go home and have to work so hard beforehand. Also, the countries they left have issues still. So, the fact the girls made it here, gives them a much greater advantage over their former compatriots.

In addition to these learnings for me, I also came away with the following. These young girls wrote a brief letter to their school counselor asking for help as they were worried about the End of Grade exams. For those who have children, please reread the above sentence and remember the age of a fifth grade student. The school is teaching their students how to advocate for themselves in a civil manner. They do this with conflict among their peers as well. They could teach our leaders a few lessons about civil discussion and conflict resolution.

Let me close with the following observation. The psychic income of helping others is huge. If you help someone, you gain as much, sometimes more, than the person you help. You learn from them. Someone asked a popular DJ what was her greatest tip when she was delivering pizzas while in college? Without batting an eye, she said $2. When asked why, she said she delivered a pizza to a poor neighborhood and the young kids were so excited when she rang the doorbell. The mother explained we don’t have much, but once a month, we splurge on a pizza for the kids. When the future DJ tried to leave, the mother said, wait, let me give you your tip and gave the pizza person $2. When she tried to decline, the mother said, you work hard and I insist that you take this. Think about that for a while.

Toxic Charity

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.