Academic journal article Policy Review

The Smart Samaritan

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Smart Samaritan

Article excerpt

Most private charities don't think very seriously about how to help the poor. Voluntary efforts will fail to improve on government welfare unless they learn from an earlier generation of poverty fighters.

Government programs of social assistance are on the wane. They still enjoy enormous political and budgetary clout, but they are losing intellectual and moral support. Voters are clamoring for retrenchment, and policymakers are pondering ways--such as tax credits and government grants and contracts--to create a larger role for private organizations in the welfare system. President Clinton, announcing a national summit on volunteerism to be held in April, said, "Much of the work of America cannot be done by government. The solution must be the American people through voluntary service to others." The future of social assistance, it appears, will be in the hands of nonprofits, churches, and volunteer groups.

This transformation will not, however, automatically create a better welfare system. The government system has failed because it has followed a defective approach to helping the poor. If the private sector maintains that approach--and it is in danger of doing so--we could end up with a welfare regime just as dysfunctional as the one we are struggling to replace. Before the country plunges into the brave new world of voluntary charity, we need to do some hard thinking about the right way and wrong way to give assistance to the needy. Here are some principles that charity leaders and volunteers ought to consider as they devise their own programs.

1. Unexamined giving leads to defective charity.

Upon seeing a needy person, a benefactor's first impulse is a desire to fill the need. We see a beggar on the street who seems hungry, and we give him food. We see a person who is homeless, and we give him shelter. This is "sympathetic giving": giving according to the sympathy or pity one feels for the plight of the needy person. The problem is that such giving tends to "reward" the plight: Instead of lifting the recipient to self-sufficiency, sympathetic giving reinforces his bad habits and undercuts his motivation to reform himself. In this way, it leads to dependency and an ever-growing demand for more giving.

Government programs are typically programs of sympathetic giving. Although they are sold to the public as a "hand up," they are--or almost invariably become--"handouts," that is, giveaways of goods and services based on the apparent need of the recipients. Hence, the programs inadvertently reinforce bad habits and wrong choices: losing a job because of drug or alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, not saving money, having children one cannot support, not striving to overcome a disability, and so on.

Modern charity workers and donors need a comprehensive theory of giving to replace this flawed doctrine. Fortunately, we do not need to invent it. The 19th-century charity theorists covered this ground thoroughly, and they have left us a clear account of their conclusions.

Earlier reformers insisted that sound policy requires more than pity toward the needy. It must also include tough-minded analysis. In 1876, American preacher and sociologist Charles Ames put it this way:

"The open hand must be guided by the open eye. The impulse of pity, or compassion for suffering, belongs to every well-ordered mind; but like every other impulse, taken by itself alone, it is blind and idiotic. Unable to protect itself against imposition, unable also to discriminate and adapt its relief to the various conditions of actual helplessness, it flings its resources abroad at haphazard, and gushes itself to death."

In many private charities around the country, this advice is disregarded. All too often, charity volunteers assume that if they are motivated by compassion, there is no reason to examine the long-term effect of their programs.

In Sacramento, California, a group of reformers started a homeless shelter in 1983 called Loaves and Fishes. …

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