Thursday, April 20, 2006

Handouts -- do they help or are they a hinderance?

I’ve gotten to know him through one of my coffee shop “satellite offices”. He and his wife live in Over-the-Rhine (for you non Cincinnatians, that is the hood – the hoodiest of the hoods in Cincinnati).

He told me that over the months that he’s been there, he’s watched from his window as churches from the suburbs came in on the weekends and handed out free food in the park – people from all over the neighborhood lined up to get their handout. And then these well meaning church folks pack up and head back to the burbs. “It does more harm than good” he said. He told me that it perpetuates a culture of dependence upon the handout. It enables folks to use what discretionary money they have to waste it upon alcohol and drugs. “You should see the cars these people drive” he said. He once challenged a homeless guy why he didn’t get a job and work – the homeless guy was honest in his response “I can make more money by begging than you can in your job.”

Now bear in mind, my friend who was venting isn’t some rich venture capitalist. He’s not a lawyer or doctor. He’s a barrista – he and his wife work hard and live simply to make ends meet – and they’re being thrifty, frugal and industrious to do it.

I listened and asked questions (a skill that I’m still working on learning). He talked about how Christians needed to learn to examine their motives – are they actually trying to help – or are they trying to make themselves feel better? If trying to help, why not invest themselves in relationships with the poor. Why not challenge them to step up and do for themselves – equip them – teach them. He told of when he was a missionary in East Africa during a time of drought. Every day people came to ask for water – and every day he wrestled and agonized with saying “no” – he just couldn’t give water to one person while the rest of the village went thirsty. And then he learned that there was plenty of water available. The Chineese government had come in and drilled hundreds of wells all around the region in which he served. They taught the locals that all they had to do to assure their continual supply of water is to keep the wells oiled and maintained. And the locals neglected to do it. They simply refused to help themselves.

This ties in a bit with my previous post on microlending. Reader John Jensen challenged the idea in a gentle way – questioning whether it is a viable business model, or whether it is simply a more sophisticated way of doing handouts. He is a real proponent of programs like JobsPlus (“Jobs Plus is a non-profit organization that helps break cycles of poverty and unhealthy dependencies for individuals in low-income communities by providing job opportunities and a network of support and accountability leading to healthier lifestyles”) or Smart Money (“SmartMoney Community Services will be the leading provider of comprehensive affordable financial services and economic education, empowering families to achieve their financial goals while enhancing the quality of life in our community.” )

These are programs that teach job skills and the disciplines of personal finance. They equip people with the tools to help themselves. I agree with John, those programs are great and very effective. Check out their websites – they are eye opening. However, I’m not quite ready to write off microlending as a business model yet – mainly because as with any business model, you’ll find that there are more people who fail at it than succeed. Reader Michael Kruse pointed me to a really innovative microlending outfit called Kiva – they allow you as an individual to participate in a loan to an individual in the third world – read the info on their website, it’s pretty fascinating. Interestingly, Kruse has a really good post on the biblical concept of Jubilee up today. But back to the main point – for both microlending and the teaching model to succeed, they require relationship – something above and beyond drive by handouts.

It’s a sticky conundrum – especially when you have to look someone in the eye and tell them “no, I won’t give you any money”. I’m still chewing on this one – any thoughts (John, I expect to hear you chime in on this one)

Soli Deo Gloria