Most direct service charity is set up to with the presumption that people who need things do not have gifts, they are only people with needs, weaknesses, people who are broken. Because we don’t know the people who are served, and sometimes even when we do know the people, we begin to presume that hunger grows out of something more dangerous than simple poverty. The popular world view is that people who need food are irresponsible, without gifts or strengths, unwilling to work, mentally ill, addicted, criminals, in-short we begin to see the problem is the people who don’t have enough, not the system that doesn’t allow for enough. We start to see people as their addictions, their mental health challenges, their struggles, and then more insidiously we begin to wonder if they are responsible with their money, responsible with their families, responsible with their lives.
Laura Stivers’ critique of several direct service homeless ministries demonstrates how we demonize people who live with poverty. She argues that homelessness is conflated with chronic homelessness (Stivers 49); similarly, people who don’t have enough food are often conflated with people who are homeless. Because home ownership is a mark of responsibility, not having a home becomes a sign of irresponsibility (Stivers 47). Not having enough food becomes a sign of not knowing how to budget for food, shop for food, or how to cook food, a sign of unreliability and incompetence (Stivers 49).
People who need homes and need food are seen as unable to provide for themselves because of unreliable and incompetent past choices, rather than because of they way choices are limited for people who live with poverty. Since they make poor choices, we who have enough are encouraged to help people develop new skills; job skills, social skills, skills for healthier decision making, without any evaluation as to whether individuals actually lack any of those skills. People in need begin to be identified as “diseased other,” someone wholly unlike me, which helps to covertly create “a moral boundary between who is respectable/clean… or diseased/dirty” (Stivers 51). The wide boundary between people with and without resources is made even wider by this covert stereotype.
Stivers suggests that the stereotype of disease encourages people with enough to look for cures and the image of having plenty leads to encouraging people with little to learn middle class language, values, and practices as a step to breaking out of poverty (Stivers 75). The presumption is that if people in need were more like people with plenty, they would not have gotten into this predicament. In both ministries Stivers studied, they are involved in “transforming” the individuals and families who take part. As long as people in need must be transformed we are presuming they were not good enough at the start (Stivers 114). Stivers would like to see society, systems, and supports transformed, rather than focusing on transforming the individuals who struggle to deal systemic obstacles.
Even more compassionate views of people in poverty emphasize the deviance of the individual rather than the systemic challenges people without sufficient resources face. Seeing the poor as victims of trauma, as suffering from mentally illness, as victims of assault, and/or as abused, help us to respond with compassion and helpful services (Stivers 53) and yet still presumes that the role of shelters, food programs, and social services, is to treat the individuals for their woundedness rather than change systems to prevent wounds, and to prevent wounds from leading to poverty (Stivers 54). There are many survivors of trauma, mental illness, and people living with addictions who are not homeless or short of food resources—the difference between them is only whether or not they have the money. Victim language suggests that the people without homes do not have agency in their lives (Stivers 55).
Direct service ministries are a problem when we see people only as victims, and only as people who make bad decisions, and only as people who have needs. Interestingly, Stivers found that even in programs where the staff and volunteers get to know the participants in some depth, the world-view that the people are the problem is hard to break. For example, at one of the programs Stivers studied the guests named low paying jobs and the inability to access affordable housing as key to their poverty, while the staff listed dysfunctional behavior of people who are homeless and the shortage of shelters (Stivers 72). When we are working for programs that presume that we have to change the person in need, rather than in programs that address the faults of the system, we are inclined to hear that our program is providing exactly what is needed. “People who have experienced poverty and/or homelessness know what the structural obstacles are” (Stivers 112). We have to recognize that people in need have a voice that we can listen to, have knowledge that we may not have, have contributions to make to the work of ending homelessness or food insecurity.
And yet even asking for people’s contributions can be done in a way that is, to use Lupton’s word, toxic. In both ministries Stivers studied the people in need help with the work, in one program after they are transformed appropriately (in faith and independence from the program) they come back as volunteers, in the other work is required as payment for the resources provided. The implication with the work requirement is that otherwise this is a handout that will increase dependence, although Stivers notes that there are no work requirements that come with a handout like the mortgage interest tax credit (Stivers 115). People with housing have demonstrated their worthiness by qualifying for a mortgage; people in need of housing must demonstrate their worthiness in other ways.
Interestingly, Lupton sees work and payment for services as reducing the toxicity of direct service charities. He argues for creating food co-ops in place of food pantries, in order to protect the participant’s dignity. People who need food join for a low fee and receive a higher dollar amount of “surplus” food (Lupton 7). Throughout the book Toxic Charity Lupton successfully avoids blaming people who are poor for their poverty, but he does imply that without payments or work requirements people prefer dependence on handouts. His concern with direct service is that it is too tempting for people in poverty to choose the easy (and apparently to him, comfortable) life of poverty, rather than to make the life transforming changes required for having enough. While he argues against direct service ministries he emphasizes the brokenness of individuals, rather than systems, when he emphasizes that direct service job training programs are ok (Lupton 56).
A big fan of job training is David Apple, an urban missioner encouraging churches to go beyond food ministries in Not Just a Soup Kitchen. The strength of this book is its emphasis on relationship building, and on his understanding that he himself is broke, that all of us who have enough are equally broken, and that in God’s eyes we are equal in our relationships. He notes the ways that the addicts he meets generally describe themselves as losers, as unworthy of a better life, as unworthy of services to help them (Apple loc 852). Unfortunately he then presumes that that sense of unworthiness is a sign of a lack of faith, and that that lack of faith is the primary block to getting ahead in the world. He, as Stivers has critiqued, is identifying personal brokenness (which for him is lack of Jesus) as the primary obstacle to food security. This helps him to see, then, other services for fixing the individual as essential to effective help, so he suggests job training, recovery services, teaching reading, and most importantly, Bible study and teaching about Jesus. As Stivers notes, even this compassionate approach presumes the people in poverty are problems, rather than that the system that creates poverty is the problem. People who need food are seen as only needy, not a combination of needs and strengths.
Apple, Dr. David S. Not Just a Soup Kitchen: How Mercy Ministry in the Local Church Transforms us All. Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2014. Kindle.
Laura. Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Kindle.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.