Monday, July 30, 2007

Can Charity Solve Poverty?

My mother grew up in poverty. My definition of "poverty" is no electricity.

But my mother did not grow up in poverty. She never thought of herself as "poor." Millions of other Americans similarly situated in that day did not think of themselves as "poor."

I would not want to live as the richest man in America did in 1776. No electricity, no anesthesia, primitive health care, horse manure instead of smog, soot-filled houses -- yet no one in such conditions thought of himself as being "poor."

Did "charity" help move America from 18th-century poverty to 21st-century wealth? Will "charity" help the developing nations? Does "charity" help "the poor" in America?

Who does "charity" really help? Can charity solve poverty?

Personal charity can help Job, the Biblical Patriarch who lost everything through no fault of his own, and will recover when his time of testing is over. Charity can help the truly (but only temporarily) needy person. But let's redefine "poverty" as a social phenomenon and "charity" as a social institution, whether a government program or the Salvation Army.

During my decade at the Catholic Worker, I was involved in "charity," serving tens of thousands of meals to thousands of people the government would say were below the "poverty level," giving extended hospitality to hundreds more in my home. While talking with one of my favorite brain-stormers the other day, the subject of "success stories" came up. Many social service organizations like to keep a catalog of "success stories" -- people we've helped that have gone on to "success." Donors often look for "success stories": formerly homeless people who are now "self-sufficient," and whose children will not need "welfare."

They are few and far between.

Most of the true success stories are those who volunteered to help. They experienced the greatest transformation. (And even then, most of the transformation took place before they spent a single minute volunteering at our House of Hospitality. A person has already been transformed who feels empowered to leave the comfortable suburbs to spend a day with street people in the inner city.)

Most of the verses in the Bible that speak of poverty or the poor address those who are not poor or seek to avoid poverty. There is seldom a case in which the action prescribed will permanently eliminate poverty or even has that as a goal. The goal is transformation of the giver.

In the book of Proverbs, poverty is held out as a curse upon the lazy. The goal is transformation of the lazy into workers.

The permanent end of poverty comes with two things.
First, we must have "a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence," to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says there will be no poverty if we obey "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" because God materially blesses obedience.

Second, we have to repudiate the idea of "self-sufficiency" -- ironically the goal of most charitable institutions. The richest people in the world are those who have become dependent on the greatest number of people, and tangibly express their gratitude to them. The man who is very wealthy because he owns the largest pencil factory in the world could not make a pencil by himself if his life depended on it. The "division of labor" is the source of the world's wealth, humanly speaking. You specialize in one area of production, and depend on a million other specialists for the fruits of their labor. Wealth comes from cooperation between millions of people who are not "rugged individualists." Specialization depends on private property, and effective cooperation depends on freely fluctuating prices and a dependable medium of exchange (money).

In short, capitalism solves poverty.

But Capitalism depends on moral virtues which are the heart of cooperation. This is why Capitalism also ends war.

In my experience, most of the poor are "rugged individualists." They are not capitalists (in the sense above: systematic cooperation and dependence). They will not submit to parents, employers, or the Market. They are at war with others. They want to be served, rather than serve. They resist the character traits that undergird social cooperation.

The government says there are over 30 million people in America who are "poor." Of that number, 76% have air conditioning, nearly 75% have a car, 97%have a color television (over half own two or more color televisions) 78% have a VCR or DVD player; 62% have cable or satellite TV reception, 73% own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher. They are "wealthy" by American standards of a couple of generations ago.

Of the true have-nots -- those occupying the smaller percentages, the flip-side of the numbers above -- some are truly destitute, having lost their possessions and now on the street. Others have calculated that the energy and discipline required to obtain those things does not outweigh the freedom of "camping out" on the streets and enjoying the fruits of misguided people seeking to "help the poor," including free food from soup kitchens and the occasional government check for the drug dealers.

It is far better to be "truly destitute" in a developed capitalist nation than in an undeveloped pagan nation.

My parents never thought of themselves as "in need of welfare." Those who are poor but not in their own eyes don't demand charity as an "entitlement." They will have children who are "success stories." If you give them practical pointers on how to follow the path America followed from poverty to wealth, they will be grateful. Invite them over for dinner, and you'll enjoy the conversation.

My conservative friends have criticized me for feeding homeless people who refuse to work. They quote the Bible: "If any will not work, neither should he eat." But this is not a command to me, but a command to many of those I served who sought a free meal in order to avoid work. I have the right to invite non-violent but lazy homeless goof-offs over for dinner in preference to wealthy workaholic CEOs who ignore their families in the pursuit of superfluous wealth.

Poverty as a social condition cannot be solved by charity. It will not be solved by socialism, which is coerced charity. Like everything else, it's a moral problem.

Most so-called "capitalists" do not believe in capitalism as I've defined it. They are in fact socialists, crying out for more government handouts, and relying on government coercion rather than persuasion and tangible expressions of gratitude for the cooperation of others. You will seldom see forthright defenses of capitalism as a solution to poverty in such publications as Business Week because so-called capitalists see pure capitalism as a threat to their government assistance. College campuses promote Che Guevara more than they do Ludwig von Mises, even though capitalism has benefited more poor people than any socialist revolution.

Charity does not produce wealth. Wealth is produced by work, in a spirit of service, which is cooperation and gratitude.

Questions, comments, complaints, insults, and threats from my friends in social service organizations are always appreciated.

Colossians 3:13-15
Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man hath a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also [do] ye.
And above all these things [put on] charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.

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