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Charity and the Work Ethic

Bill Neinast


Toxic Charity is an excellent primer for anyone interested in charity.  Whether interested in giving, planning, or participating, this short book is a must read.

Robert D. Lupton, the author, has been involved with charitable works in Atlanta for 30 years.  As founder and president of FFCS urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies), he knows whereof he speaks when he discusses how churches and charities hurt those they help.

Upton is not anti charity.  He is, however, concerned about how most charities in this country are planned and executed.  In his opinion, charities bear responsibility with the federal government for creating a society of dependency.

Concomitant with that culture of dependency is a loss of the work ethic.  Without that work ethic, the effective charities in third world countries that involve buy ins by the communities being helped have little chance of success in the U.S.

Several examples of the need for involving targeted communities in the help project involve water wells in Africa.

In one area, women were walking several miles to get their daily supplies of water.   A group of Americans decided to help.  They had a well dug and fitted with a pump in the center of the village.  When they returned to admire their gift a year later, they found the villagers trudging back to the old spring for water.  The pump on the well had broken and no one knew or bothered to learn how to fix it.

Another group learning of a need for water in a village undertook their assistance differently.  They involved the village in the project from the beginning.  Villagers decided where to dig the well and who would be served by it.  They developed a community system with water piped to homes, where it is paid for.  That village is now piping and selling water to other villages in the area.

Upton also considers mission trips to be religious tourism.  He illustrates this belief with examples of trips, usually by church affiliated groups, that provide no real or lasting benefit for the community being “served.” 

The money spent on transporting and supporting the mission participants could be used more effectively.   Money instead of bodies to help the target community accomplish a task internally like the water system mentioned above would be much better gifts.

A local pastor who has participated in some missions agrees.  He believes, however, that the real benefit of such trips is the spiritual lift the trips give the participating parishioners. 

Is that a valid trade off?  Upton probably would answer, “No.”

He would cite in response the mission group that went to a third world country to tile the floor of a new church.  None of the participants had tiling experience. When the mission left, local tile setters had to redo the whole floor at more expense than if they had done the job initially.

Was the spiritual lift for a small group of inexperienced tile setters worth the cost, regardless of the source of the money?

Locally, the Upton technique could have profound effects. 

Take the Goodfellows give aways for the Christmas season.  A new approach would be to buy the same toys and food with the donated funds, but not to be given away.  The items would still be available for the identified families, but not as gifts.  Instead, they would have to buy them at substantially reduced prices.

This should restore in the heads of households an appreciation of being able to provide for their own families.

So here’s the perspective.

Upton believes the best charity is the microlending described in the development of the community water system.  Unfortunately, he believes that microlending and  a buy in of Goodfellows discussed above will not work in the United States.

In his own words, “Experienced microlending organizations have identified three essential elements for successful microloans:  The borrower must have (1) an ingrained work ethic, (2) a demonstrated entrepreneurial instinct, and (3) a stable support system.  Like legs on a three-legged stool, all three must undergird the borrower or the transaction will not stand.

“In developing countries where people must constantly hustle simply to survive, a work ethic is almost a given.  Not so in a culture like the United States, where the welfare system has fostered generations of dependency and has severely eroded the work ethic.  Where a people assume that their subsistence is guaranteed, hard work becomes neither a necessity for survival nor a means to escape poverty.” (pages 120-121)

When and how can we restore the work ethic in our homeland?