Robert D. Lupton jumps right in to what he describes as “the scandal” of people giving money to poverty early in his book, Toxic Charity. Lupton is the founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries and has also written multiple christian based works on a broad variety of topics. He is very aware, much more than most people, of the impact that poverty has on our nation, and around the world, as he has worked primarily in inner-city Atlanta for the past 40 years. As a community developer, entrepreneur, and devout christian, he raises many moving points throughout his novel on tackling poverty.
From the beginning of chapter one Lupton gives readers an overview of his stance on poverty. He believes that as Americans we have only the best of intentions giving our money to charity, but we also need to have a better awareness of where our money is actually going. From the beginning of the book his thoughts began to grow on me and have slightly influenced an aspect of life that I do not give too much thought. The statistics repeatedly show that America’s “helping hand” does not actually help as much as we think it does. Lupton points out that decades prior to the devastating earthquake in Haiti more that 8 billion dollars of aid has been sent to the country. Haiti has actually ended up 25 percent poorer than prior to the aid beginning.(p 36) If people are able to actually help themselves, then it is essential that we teach them how to help themselves, not just throw money in their direction. Lupton is able to back these statistics with a number of interesting stories throughout the book in an attempt to change the way that people battle poverty.
One story that I found very moving that backs up this key perspective he entitles, “Need Based Relationships.” A woman, Ann, who works at a soup kitchen crosses paths with a poor, needy woman named Janice. Ann is moved by Janice’s story and begins to help her a little extra outside of the soup kitchen to find her a place to live, and more food for Janice’s children. This seems to be working out well for a short time, and Janice seemed to have a hopeful outlook on her future. As time goes on Ann finds out a little more about Janice’s story and realizes that she is not the only one that is helping this woman. Janice had been taking advantage of multiple churches and overly compassionate people such as Ann for her own selfish needs. Lupton ends this story explaining, “relationships built on need do not reduce need.” (p 61) Janice had grown dependent on Ann and others like her, and because these people were so giving, Janice had no need to work for herself. I feel that it is very important for people like Ann to not just give too much extra effort due to the fact that these people will eventually become dependent and they will never be able to establish a name for themselves, ultimately destroying the system of help that has been established for them in the first place. This story really sets the standard on how we should not just give and give, rather we should teach people the direction to go in, and eventually they will be able to sustain themselves without any more help.
Later in the novel Lupton raises some solutions to the problems of poverty. One solution, microlending, seems to have very positive affects on international poverty in entirely poor nations. In some impoverished countries, Lupton uses Nicaragua as an example, there is a great need for entrepreneurship. If we, as a much wealthier nation are able to establish “trust groups” between groups of people in this nation we can lend them money, as well as teach the people how to hone their skills to produce profit and raise standard of living. Geralyn Sheehan took the initiative to seek out driven people in Nicaragua and help them fund community driven projects to enhance the standard of living. These “trust groups of people were able to sit down with Geralyn and establish business models that overtime greatly benefitted the community. These people were willing to accept outside “teachers” to point them in the right direction, as well as microloans, to jump start their business ventures. Overtime their businesses succeeded and they were able to pay back these loans and enhance the standard of living in their community with a new flow of money into their villages economy. From my point of view this is something that needs to be done all over the world. It is proven to work and I think that microlending provides a great strategy to tackle poverty around the world.
Now by the time I finished the book I asked myself, “What have I really learned?” Apart from a few statistics and new stories about poverty I feel that I have taken away one or two key points from this novel. First, I think that the United States has taken the battle on poverty in an entirely wrong direction over the past few decades. We have established the need to help those less privileged than us, but over time the system that we use seems to do more harm than good. It is important to understand that money is not everything. Yes, while it does help tremendously in times of crises, normal acts of giving do not tend to help as much. Each scenario is different and we have to establish groups that are willing to tackle each scenario based on its needs. We need to pay more attention to what poor people need and want, and then stay actively involved with them to make their dreams a reality. This brings me to my second major point that I think I have learned. Honestly, Lupton sums it up perfectly when he states, “ Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”(p108) Just like the instance of Ann and Janice that I mentioned earlier, if we continue to throw money and take control of people like Janice then they will become dependent. To teach people, and point them in the right direction, may be a hundred times more difficult, but it will have a lasting effect. To take a group of successful minds and place them in a community in need, with the idea of teaching and mentoring, instead of just giving money, will have an incredible impact on both parties.
I think that Lupton’s novel has been a great precursor to the things that we will see in South Africa. It is important to understand that the people down there have great opportunities for entrepreneurship and small business gains. Giving them money will most likely leave them off poorer and dependent, but overtime as we show these people the opportunity that is in front of them they will take advantage of it and turn South Africa into an incredible nation. They have the resources at their disposal and it is evident that some of Lupton’s tactics are being used, considering that South Africa has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.