Toxic Charity and Human Service Cuts

by Amy Reumann, LAMPa Director
Congregations do great things. We serve our neighbors and respond to local needs, often on a shoestring with a few dedicated volunteers. We hand out food, start support groups, and initiate new programs in our communities. We understand that charity is an essential response to the Gospel.

Lawmakers have noticed this. As budget cuts slash government programs that serve the poor, the rhetoric justifying those cuts often includes the line, “The faith community can do it”. I’ve heard in proposed reductions to PA WorkWear (churches will give them clothes!) and food programs (churches can give them food!). Most recently I’ve heard it in reference to the proposed elimination of General Assistance (GA), a small monthly cash payment to goes to the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and the 20% proposed reduction to the programs bundled into the Human Services Development Fund block grant. Let the church or synagogue or mosque take care of those tossed off GA, and minister to the human collateral from unprecedented human service cuts, or so the logic goes.

Taking care of those in poverty is a core mission of the church. But this refrain ignores two facts. Congregations are stretched thin, too, with finite resources. We can do a lot with five loaves and two fish, but we cannot feed, shelter or tend to all who have been cut loose at once. The other point is that church charity, while delivered with love and good intentions, is not always the most appropriate, efficient or effective for the needs of those seeking help.

Toxic charity is a term coined to describe the well-meaning faith-based ministries that end up denying the dignity of those served and which can actually hinder their achieving self-sufficiency. I’ve been involved with church programs, and observed others, that stuff bags full of food that may or may not meet the nutritional needs of recipients. I’ve given cash to people who have shown up at the parsonage, sometimes just to get rid of them, without asking for accountability or relationship. I have been a part of caring for neighbors by dishing up a hot meal, when what they really needed was job training or drug counseling. I’ve handed out gas cards, but didn’t have the means or know-how to procure needed medication or foreclosure assistance. Church volunteers do their best, but in the end are rarely trained to work with people with addictions, those with disabilities or victims of abuse. We’re not good at spotting scammers either, except those times when you talk to your clergy conference and find out the same person has hit up every church in town with the same story. Our rostered leaders are not trained social workers, and rarely equipped to accompany people for the long haul to move them from charity to self-sufficiency.

The term “toxic charity” is meant to shock congregations into reviewing how they serve and to find new ways, resources and partners to address root causes, instead of symptoms. It’s also prompted me to think about how picking up whatever government drops is not a recipe for deep change in people’s lives or systemic causes of poverty, or necessarily the best way to serve God. The truth is, government is often better suited and better equipped to delivering the appropriate care to those in need. It also has a calling to do so. And when that is the case, we have a job to do in holding government accountable to its responsibility to care for the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

Too often these days the church’s role has included absorbing what government lets drop. And we will continue to do so in the coming round of cuts. The refrain “the faith community can do it” is a challenge for those who serve God through serving neighbor to take a long look at how we are feeding and helping, to question our outcomes and improve our practices. “The faith community can do it” is a dead end, however, if it continues to be the easy answer to our government’s hard budget questions and even harder moral ones.

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