For The Someday Book

Book Review: Toxic Charity

Posted on: October 30, 2014

Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), New York: HarperOne, 2011, 191 pp.

Toxic CharityI had been both intrigued and nervous about this book since it came out a few years ago. I have long wondered how many social service agencies and charities are in the business of eliminating hunger, poverty and injustice versus how many are in the business of making good business–which means securing and even increasing the number of people eligible for services, therefore growing their organization and its importance. Likewise, I share with Lupton a skepticism about how much church volunteerism serves the needs of church do-gooders versus how much it serves the needs of those supposedly being served. However, I am leery of those (generally right-leaning, Republican) thinkers who believe that all aid creates freeloaders and therefore we should eliminate all social programs, effectively punishing people who are poor or in crisis. I worried that Lupton would fall into that category, or at least support those arguments. I was hopeful that he would offer a scathing analysis of the injustice of our current economic system, including our reliance on charity for our social support system. I was fearful that he would ignore systemic injustice and insist that poverty was caused by entitlement and laziness.

Toxic Charity split the difference between my hope and my fear about it. Lupton does not blame poor people for their plight, or make claims that they should be abandoned to their own problems or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” He acknowledges the injustice of major barriers like low wages, zones of urban blight and lack of childcare. He dismantles all our charitable endeavors and analyzes the culture of dependence they create, the submission they demand, and the way they often create more problems than they solve. This was excellent. However, the solutions he offers are all embedded in the same capitalist economic system that created the problems in the first place. Creating jobs and economic opportunity is a good thing, and I applaud Lupton’s work and writing–but I desperately wanted him to take it one more step and label our current economic system as unjust, to name the reality that capitalism depends on cheap labor and extracting value from some to send it to others. Instead, he rests with efforts to help people succeed in the system as it currently exists.

The greatest strength of Toxic Charity is its absolute take-down of our current system of charity. Lupton argues, convincingly, that few charitable institutions actually help solve the problems they were created to correct. Instead, they tend to perpetuate them or even make them worse. He criticizes this from a business and stewardship perspective, but more from the perspective of healthy relationships.

“Relationships based on need are seldom healthy. There is an implicit expectation (or at least hope) that the recipient of charity will use that assistance to better himself. … Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate. At some point accountability is required. The lack of full disclosure opens the door to suspicion and mistrust. … Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. When one problem is solved, another must be presented in order for the relationship to continue. (60-61)

Healthy relationships require some equality between partners. Our current charitable endeavors encourage exactly the opposite–an ongoing pattern of giver and receiver, which means those relationships quickly become toxic for both parties.

His analysis extends especially deeply and well into short-term mission projects undertaken by churches. Whether it’s a day spent in a nearby inner city neighborhood, or an expensive trip overseas to build some needed house or well in a foreign country, Lupton names the reality that these journeys are far more about the needs and feelings of the givers than the receivers.  They foster a culture of dependence, remove economic development opportunities from local economies, and waste millions of dollars on unnecessary travel to bring people with no expertise to do a job they are less equipped to handle than the local population. So why do we do it? What Lupton says: because it makes us feel good. What I want Lupton to go on to say: Because it makes us feel better about our own wealth. Because it helps us sleep at night. Because it relieves our guilt about benefiting from a system that is destroying others.

Lupton doesn’t tell us to stop giving money and time to help poor people. Instead, he says that giving time and money is the cheap, easy solution to help us feel better about being good people–it’s not actually about helping people succeed. (Again, this is where I wanted him to really lay down the systemic critique, to name the reality that our charity is subsidizing an economic system that is taking advantage of people and leaving them in the dust. He doesn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away the validity and import of what he does say.) He recommends ideas like helping establish co-ops for food or childcare, creating micro-lending opportunities, and engaging in economic development. He offers a basic guideline for charity. A crisis, whether personal or communal, requires direct provision of food, clothes, cash and other basic necessities. A chronic poverty need, however, requires a different response of engagement in the communal and personal factors causing the poverty. Otherwise, he says, “when we we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, dependence, disempowerment.” (56)

The kind of true engagement Lupton proposes requires a long-term investment in relationship, a deep risk-taking on behalf of a community, and a personal and corporate investment in doing with people, not for them. Lupton summarizes his approach in an “Oath for Compassionate Service:”

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. [I know this as Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule–JMK]
  • 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. (128)

Lupton’s book, even though I wish it had gone farther and been more critical of capitalism and injustice, should be required reading for non-profit boards and directors, church pastors and mission boards, and philanthropists of all kinds.

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1 Response to "Book Review: Toxic Charity"

[…] help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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