Let’s Do Philanthropy That Actually Works

Low-income communities need neighborhood stabilization, not charitable handouts

A better way. Instead of one-time handouts, poor communities need long-term investment. Image Credit: Maskot/Getty Images

In “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace,” my co-author, Marcus Witcher, and I annoy conservatives and progressives alike by condemning America’s history of racial oppression while maintaining real hope for a bright shared future. This history includes a painful recounting of how Federal Housing Administration redlining, urban renewal and the building of the federal highway system ghettoized poor Black Americans in inner cities. The kind of economic isolation that our fellow citizens and neighbors experience can be hard to imagine, when their geographic locations are often so close to flourishing economies. But there’s nothing like massive walls of concrete separating some people from others, paired with systematic eminent domain abuse undermining ownership of homes and businesses, to utterly destabilize a neighborhood. When the economic and cultural center of a neighborhood is mowed down and its residents scattered, the fallout for its civil society institutions will be devastating.

Those on the political right often complain that government welfare programs are dehumanizing, diminish human dignity and create perverse incentives for their recipients. But neither they nor their opponents on the left seem to recognize that we run our private charities along very similar lines, with similar results. Our destabilized neighborhoods need something revolutionary to repair all that’s been lost, but instead, food pantries, clothing drives and Christmas shoeboxes remain the image of philanthropy that most Americans have today. Those who have reflected a bit more on what to do in our inner cities have barely done better, picking up welfare-dependent families and plopping them down in the middle of a suburb 20 miles away, or insisting that if we just gave even more funding to our failing public schools, the kids would be all right.

The common thread among all these plans is an attitude one might call ignorant superiority: better-off people assuming, without asking, that they know what less-well-off people need and then being frustrated when the less-well-off don’t show up for the programs or aren’t grateful. And very little has changed after decades of doing the same things over and over again. An alternative to this broken system of public and private handouts is neighborhood stabilization. This approach gets to the disease and not just the symptoms, and it is working in small experiments across the country. But it takes more love and thought than either your welfare office or your local church is often willing to undertake.

Rejecting Ignorant Superiority

As Ian Rowe brilliantly points out in his recent book, “Agency,” the U.S. has become mired in a ridiculous tribalism that paints the conservative view as a hyperindividualistic focus on free will and the progressive view as a surrender to despair over systemic oppression. But the 86% of Americans who aren’t obsessed with politics and culture wars know full well that the truth lies somewhere in between: Every individual has choices, but both a person’s character and range of choices will be deeply shaped by upbringing and environment. Positive social change comes when we make the better choices more viable for more people.

So those on the right are correct that the hubris of federally funded social engineering has created U.S. inner cities, with all their attendant tragedy. And individuals can break free from the dysfunctional cycles of family breakdown, poverty and crime—but, as progressives acknowledge, quite rarely will they be able to do it alone. Individuals flourish most when they are raised in healthy families and healthy communities. They don’t have to be rich, but they have to be stable.

The great John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, speaks of the attitude one must have to undertake the work of neighborhood stabilization. Yes, you’ll be in the neighborhood for eight to 10 years. Yes, you’re committing to stay through all kinds of trials. But the person who can succeed in this kind of work needs to reject any feeling of superiority and understand that we are all just as broken as the neighborhoods and neighbors we serve. This might sound like a pandering falsehood to some. But think of this this way: If I had grown up on this street, seen what these kids have seen, in many cases grown up without the loving guidance of a father, lost friends and family to death and prison, what kind of shape would I be in? Would I have the stability in my life, the financial success or the social networks that I have today? Further, those who do the work of neighborhood stabilization must recognize that the poor have much to offer. When the creativity, abilities and skills of the poor go unknown and unused, we all lose out.

Subjects of Exchange, Not Mere Recipients

Our entire attitude when doing philanthropy must change. Instead of treating the poor as mere recipients, we must see them as subjects of economic and cultural exchange, just like everyone else we meet. In Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity,” he proposes a commitment that includes never doing for others what they can do for themselves, always looking for opportunities to exchange and subordinating my or my organization’s agenda to my neighbors’ agenda for their own neighborhood.

Lupton’s opening story is poignant: Delivering Christmas shoeboxes to various homes, he noticed that the children were delighted and the mothers tolerant for the sake of their children, but the fathers were sneaking out the back door. By treating that family as mere recipients, he undermined the dignity of the parents—and in front of their children, no less. The following year, Bob decided to open a Christmas store instead. He took the donated toys and charged a deeply discounted price for them. Some of the women in the neighborhood became interested in running the store and selling cookies and pies there. Parents could pick out presents for their children themselves, pay for them, wrap them and give them on Christmas morning. By treating people as subjects of exchange, Bob not only stopped undermining their dignity, but he started empowering businesswomen and entrepreneurs. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey, one which has turned the Atlanta neighborhood where Focused Community Strategies works into a beacon of neighborhood stabilization.

Many deplore the social and economic isolation of our social engineering projects, the welfare state’s terrible undermining of families and work ethic, our failing inner-city schools and out-of-control criminal justice system. But our neighbors can’t wait for these policy problems to be solved. Even if we eliminated welfare cliffs, attached school funding to the student instead of the system and ended overcriminalization and mass incarceration, the damage has already been done. Poor neighborhoods are cut off from those around them, many dads have been out of the home for a few generations already and the inevitable replacements for stable families—gangs—have entrenched themselves.

This state of affairs may sound hopeless, but the neighborhood stabilization model works because it breaks these cycles before they can fully begin. A kid who graduates and keeps a great job never gets on the welfare train, never joins a gang and doesn’t go to jail in the first place. When he has children of his own, his support system will be there to teach him to be a dad even if he never had one. That’s how the healing begins.

Creating Community Networks

Currently, we make it a full-time job to be poor by sending people on a daily hunt for their next handout. They can never move up because their time horizons are too short. If my goal is just to get through tomorrow or next week, I’m in survival mode. I can’t take the steps that might get me to thriving mode because I can’t think that far ahead. And even if I could, I don’t have the networks that middle- and upper-income people use to get to the next level: a reference for a job; an idea for a training, certificate or degree; advice on how to start that side business; help with taxes or regulations; even just somebody to talk me down when the boss is being a jerk.

These low-income neighbors have more to contend with but far fewer resources to bring to bear. The only way out is for middle- and upper-income people to bring their networks in. They can be mentors and friends. They can connect to jobs and capital. What’s more, they can enable the existing anchors of the community so that they can be the ones to do many of these things. Rather than making the poor dependent on us, we can empower them to build the web of interdependencies that middle- and upper-income people enjoy.

Some groups such as True Charity are beginning to recognize those decentralized, block-by-block efforts going on all over the country. Until such efforts become commonplace, read “When Helping Hurts,” “Toxic Charity” or any of the many books by Bob Woodson or John Perkins. Find the practitioners, or perhaps discover that you can be one. Be the mentor, the friend, the church that adopts a house to fix up, the academic that helps us change our mindset. To quote John Wesley, “Oh, just begin.”

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