March 15, 2013

Be Our Guest / Kevin Chaffee

There is more to understanding poverty and its implications than many of us realize

I would like to comment on David Siler’s column “Understanding poverty and its implications” in the March 1 issue of The Criterion.

I too, agree that that we need to provide a safety net for those in society who will always be dependent—the intellectually or developmentally disabled, for instance.

I also used to think that we need to help those who are not disabled get back on their feet by providing direct assistance to them. As a small business owner and dedicated Catholic, I have contributed money, food, books, Christmas gifts and time over the years to help those living in poverty.

Then I heard about a book promoted in Our Sunday Visitor called Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert D. Lupton. Lupton has spent the past 40 years of his life working in inner-city Atlanta.

According to his biography, he left a budding business career to work with delinquent urban youths. He and his family sold their suburban home and moved into the inner city, where they have lived and served as neighbors among those in need. He is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need.

I read his book and highly recommend it to anyone who gives to charity, participates in mission work, or spends time helping fight poverty. It will open your eyes to the harm we have been doing for years to the people we have been trying to help.

Lupton makes a convincing argument that direct assistance to others harms them by making them dependent on handouts. He asserts in his book that most of us have “good intentions” by giving generously. However, our giving might actually be doing more harm than good to the people we are giving to.

Lupton feels we are turning needy people into “beggars,” thereby robbing them of their initiative and dignity and, thus, leaving them in far worse shape than they were before we ever gave to them.

He proposes that there should be an oath for compassionate service, similar to the Hippocratic oath, but including such elements as:

  • Never do for the poor what they have the capacity to do for themselves;
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations;
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help;
  • Above all, do no harm.

Lupton also discusses the typical Church mission trip to foreign countries. These trips typically make the Church people feel much better about themselves, but do little to help the people they are intended to benefit.

He points out how Church volunteers laid a tile floor—poorly!—in a mission church building while the local tile contractors stood unemployed in the village square watching their work—and wages—being taken from them. He also talks about successful projects that occur when you empower people to become involved in the outcome of the project instead of doing it for them.

Again, I would highly recommend that everyone who is involved in charity work or concerned about the poor read this book. It is available in bookstores or at

I also want to say that I have no connection with the author or any financial interest whatsoever in this book. I just agree with the author that we can do more to help those in need than what is currently being done.

It reminds me of Albert Einstein’s quote. “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

(Kevin Chaffee is a member of St. Louis Parish in Batesville.)

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