A woman smiles as she receives a box of stuffing mix from volunteer Joan Zaccaro at a Catholic Charities’ center in New York’s Harlem community Nov. 22, 2011. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

During the run-up to Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season, Americans are more open-handed than at any other time of the year. They give and volunteer in greater numbers, starting in early November, and keep up the pace through late December. The givers are granted the satisfaction of knowing they have extended a helping hand to the least of these. Or have they? 

Robert D. Lupton’s answer to that question is a barely qualified “no.” He is founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies), a Christian community development agency in Atlanta’s inner city, and the author of “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help” (HarperOne, $22.99). In that book, he takes the startling view that the helpers aren’t helping. 

“In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate,” he declares at the start of the book. “What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.” 

Lupton points to such basic examples of charity as soup kitchens, clothing drives and church-sponsored service trips. These are usually counterproductive, he asserts, because they breed dependency and “destroy personal initiative” as well as family structures.

Community development

In certain quarters of political opinion, the argument is familiar enough when it comes to government social programs. But the arguers also tend to say that private charity is a good thing because such aid is more responsive to local needs, or because it doesn’t involve taxpayer money. Lupton is an exception. 

He and others are making the case that both public and private aid to the poor is frequently toxic. He speaks of the “harm inflicted by kindness,” and adds: “Our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency.” 

Giving During the Holidays
◗ The average person makes 24 percent of his annual donations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 
◗ Charitable giving has declined by about 1.3 percent during each of the five most recent national recessions.
◗ One million additional tons of garbage are produced each week between Thanksgiving and Christmas — a 25 percent increase in total waste during the holiday period than any other time of year.
◗ Of the 5,500 charities evaluated by Charity Navigator, the vast majority spend at least 75 percent of their budgets on the programs and services that they exist to provide, 10 percent or less on fundraising fees and 15 percent or less on administrative costs.
◗ Giving to charitable organizations rose 2.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) in 2010; total giving by individuals, foundations and corporations was $290.89 billion. This comes as welcome news to charitable organizations, which took a hit in 2008 and 2009 in the wake of financial crisis, when charitable giving fell 13 percent — the largest drop in charitable giving in more than 40 years.
◗ Around 19 billion cards, letters and packages are delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. Dec. 15 is the busiest mail day of the year.

Lupton allows that some charitable work is nontoxic. His main example is disaster relief, delivered by agencies like the Red Cross in times of emergency, most recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But beyond that, he sees mostly good intentions gone awry. 

What should charities be doing if they shouldn’t be folding up their tents? Lupton’s short answer is “community development.” Job placement is high on his list, as is affordable housing development, especially when done together with for-profit developers. 

In addition, let’s replace clothing drives with thrift stores, and food pantries with food co-ops that sell shares to the poor, Lupton proposes. 

Originally released a year ago, “Toxic Charity” has come out in paperback just in time for Thanksgiving, with a broad marketing push to influence media portrayals of charity during the holidays. 

Another premise of the book is that generosity toward the poor is overflowing in America. Some say they wish it were so. 

Father Thomas J. Massaro, a moral theologian and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., notes that outpourings of support for emergency relief efforts are deeply encouraging. But the same cannot be said for “ordinary grinding poverty,” he writes in his column prepared for America magazine’s Nov. 12 edition. 

“Unmet human needs for adequate food, shelter and health care is unlikely ever to present broad enough appeal to prevent the human tragedies of homeless families and lives ruined by preventable disease and malnourishment, here and abroad,” he observed. “Just ask the heroes who run Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, who struggle every day with the grim arithmetic of spiking needs and diminishing resources.”

‘Continuum of care’

In fact, meeting basic needs is always a “balancing act” for charitable agencies, and private donations have dipped even during the fragile economic recovery, said Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA. Food pantries nationwide have been cutting back on bread loaves, soup cans and other items tossed into food bags, even as the need rises with many families trying to scrape together a Thanksgiving meal, she added. 

toxic charity

Hill pointed out that people who knock on the doors of Catholic Charities during the holidays are often first-time recipients of charity, and they usually come looking for food. Typically, they have lost a job, suffered an illness or faced some other crisis. They can put off paying the utility bill or mortgage but cannot go long without eating. “We see them because they’re hungry,” she said, adding that elderly people on fixed incomes are also familiar faces at soup kitchens. 

Hill said these people form a sizeable swath of Catholic Charities recipients — the suddenly and temporarily poor. Lending a hand does not make them dependent, she said. It usually helps get them back on their feet. 

A second group consists of those with lifelong disabilities and impairments. “We help them reach their full potential,” said Hill, alluding to such efforts as job training, but Catholic Charities does so “with the understanding that they’ll never be totally independent.” They’ll always need help from both government and charities. 

The third type of recipient cited by Hill is the chronically poor, in need of continual services. On the surface, they provide Lupton with his dependency thesis, although he draws little distinction between them and others in the fluid ranks of the poor. (Approximately 25 percent of those in poverty have been poor for three years or longer, according to studies cited by Catholic Charities.) Lupton contends that much charitable aid only goes to finance their “lifestyle poverty,” caused by a lack of initiative. 

For these people, Catholic Charities offers what Hill described as a “continuum of care,” in which case workers evaluate their needs at various points. Some typical services include job training, parenting classes, rental assistance and prescription drugs for chronic illnesses. 

But Hill is reluctant to assign even these cases to the category of “lifestyle poverty.” She pointed out, for example, that a growing number of people who live in homeless shelters are holding down jobs, sometimes two or three — their wages too low for rent. “They’re some of the hardest working people I know,” said Hill. 

Catholic Charities leaders and critics like Lupton do agree on the importance of “community development.” Hill pointed out that the Catholic Church is America’s largest private developer of affordable housing, and that the call for thrift stores is unlikely to get an argument from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operates one of the largest networks of such establishments. 

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.