The debate over welfare benefits pivots around two points: the poor need financial assistance, and handouts make people dependent. The tension between these points—both of which are true—leads to a lot of ambivalence among voters, although politicians seem to have no trouble lining up on one side or the other.
During last night’s meeting of our church session (that’s like the board of directors), I got new insight into this topic when one of the elders shared information gleaned from the book Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton. The pastor encouraged us to read it. In fact, he almost insisted that we do.
Lupton’s premise is that one-way giving, excepting emergency situations, destroys relationships rather than building them, because it implies that the recipient has nothing to offer.
He highlighted a local organization that, while providing food to the needy, requires that they take financial management and life skills classes so they can avoid being repeat customers. Pastor reported that he no longer gives cash to people who come to the church office for grocery money, but instead gives them a voucher for this organization. Some of them now refuse to go because “they make us take classes.”
I’m reminded, too, of Habitat for Humanity, which provides homes to families in poverty, but requires that they also invest “sweat equity” in building someone else’s home. Heifer Project International gives livestock to impoverished farmers, with the requirement that when they breed their animals, they must pass on the first offspring to a neighbor.
Our congregation is now examining all our missions work through this lens: are we helping people gain independence, or are we encouraging dependency?
It’s a question worth asking about all our giving, however small our gifts may be.