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On Charity, Social Work, and Public Administration

  • Posted on January 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM

It is the opinion of this writer that any time you make a generalization, you enter dangerous territory. Among other things, you risk making the totality of your point (which might be valid if it were better defined) null and void by a single, contradictory example.

[Enter James I. Charlton’s Nothing About Us Without Us from stage left]

In what must be considered poignantly illustrative of their perilous and degraded status, people with disabilities are significantly controlled by charity and social service institutions (broadly considered, private welfare agencies, asylums, and residential facilities). This is the case throughout the world, although charities are more prevalent in the United States and Europe.

Some might see that it is contradictory to point out that most people with disabilities do not have access to a safety net while at the same time criticizing charities and social service agencies. (p.93)

Charlton’s premise consists of a few main points:

  1. While charities and social service agencies (lumped together, falsely) do help some, they also create dependency.
  2. They contribute to the degradation and isolation of those they help, but taking care of clients whilst keeping them out of sight.
  3. If the problems they ameliorate were solved, the charities would cease to exist.
  4. Many of the people who do this work do so because, in the words of Billy Golfus, “Their game is about wanting to be in control of other peoples’ lives,” (p. 94).

First, charities are nonprofit organizations that gather donations from the public (through public and private grants, as well) in order to meet an organizational mission. These charities may hire social workers, but a social service agency is, almost by definition, a government organization, which also hires social workers. Lumping these very different kinds of organizations together as a single problem or as a collective is logically unsound, because they operate and function in very different ways for very different purposes.

Second, the unfortunate reality is that people who cannot support themselves are dependents. While much is done that encourages continued dependence, this is true across the entire strata of society, from families to international governments. If that is to change, then services need to be made available that contribute to independence. It’s a difference of paradigm and mission, not organizational or functional structure. A nonprofit that takes creating independence, or better yet interdependence, as its mission would still be classified as a charity or a social service agency, depending on whether it’s independent or governmental in nature.

Third, organizations with such a mission already exist, as a byproduct of the same attitudes and social changes that have made the DRM movement possible. There are organizations that have already made the transition from disempowering caretaker organizations to empowering education organizations.


Fourth, any organization that fails to adapt when its environment changes, dies. Those that try to keep the environment from changing inevitably fail and die. Only those that change survive. This is no less true of charities than of any other organization.

Fifth, there certainly are people who strive to exert control over others’ lives. Some gravitate towards social work. Some start charities. Some start businesses. Some start wars. Most just have kids. We live in a broken world full of such people and the rest of us just have to live with that, or change it.

Despite the fact that I can pull apart the argument on logical grounds, there is truth to what Charlton is saying, especially from the perspective of people who’ve been disempowered for most of their lives. If people are ill-prepared to take control of their own lives, then there are those who will try to withhold control from them. Again, most of these people are called parents. There’s a time for this, and there’s a time to let go. And it’s never easy knowing which time any given moment falls under. There is nothing inherently malevolent or oppressive about this, though there are certainly malevolent and oppressive people who engage in the behavior.

For me, the heart of the matter is something that Charlton would seemingly refute or ignore. Charity is, loosely translated, most properly equivalent to “brotherly love.” The word as it is used today is a deviation of the charity found in the King James Bible in 1 Corinthians 13, which states in verse 3, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” The whole of this chapter gives ample evidence that 1) giving and 2) serving are not charity, that charity is loving others in Christ-like fashion, and that these acts only do good when they are done in the spirit of true charity. As Charlton seems quite anti-religion, he might find it rather ironic that his observations are proof of the soundness of this part of Jesus Christ’s doctrine, at the very least.

Shortly after reading and getting wound up over this segment, I had a chat with a social worker who also happens to have learning and neurological disabilities. This person had been struggling for months at work, because of miscommunication resulting in part from her reluctance to disclose her own disability and in part from her co-workers’ apparent distinction between things-that-apply-to-clients and things-that-apply-to-coworkers. This isn’t the first time this issue has gotten in the way of her work, either.

Part of it is that Charlton’s not wrong in his observations, he’s just wrong to generalize those observations and apply them to two entire sectors in the global economy. Unfortunately, he’s right that most of the professionals operating in these sectors have been taught in ways that contribute to the very problems he’s cited. These are people who often don’t know better, in that they’ve never been clients. The people who have been clients tend to be marginalized, in part because they’re not taught how to counteract the forces that marginalize them. These issues are not particular to disabilities, but are holistic and systemic within both sectors.

My friend has been a client in almost every applicable way. She has had disabilities, presumably for her entire life, but has gone undiagnosed or underdiagnosed for most of her life. She grew up in extreme poverty and in an environment rife with abuse and neglect. She has been failed time and again by the systems that supposedly operate to protect and support people like her. She entered her profession to do better for others than was done for her. And she’s not alone. There are many, many like her all over the world, who have struggled against terrible odds, who have become professionals in either the nonprofit or public sector, and have chosen to do better for others. And Charlton’s rash generalization erases them all.

On Why Pity Isn’t Charity

  • Posted on February 6, 2010 at 11:59 PM

Recently I had a discussion with an individual who described charity as giving that is motivated by pity, and used this definition in a Christian context.  I tried to explain to this individual why this was not the case.  Yet, this form of “charity” is so engrained in the American culture that she could not see the distinction I was making.  So, I’ll try here in hopes of being understood.

“Charity” as the word is used in the King James Bible is synonymous with Christian love.   Specifically, charity is defined as:

The highest, noblest, strongest kind of love, not merely affection; the pure love of Christ.  It is never used to denote alms or deeds or benevolence, although it may be a prompting motive.

Holy Bible, King James Version, 1979, published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Charity” when defined as Christian love is never pity.  Pity involves a sense of superiority:  when you pity someone, you look down on them and think they are somehow less than yourself; less fortunate, less talented, less valuable.  Less.

Matthew 25:34-40

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and too thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While “charity” is not used in the Bible as an action, if it were to be an action, then this would be the actions of which it would speak.  The phrase the least of these my brethren is misleading, apparently.  Some people associate it with pity, because if they are the least, then are they not less than us?  Jesus, who tells the parable, is NOT agreeing that those who are in need are, as so many perceive them, of less worth than those who give; He is comparing the least of these my brethren with a King and as brethren of the King.  Giving unto them is not an act of pity; it is an act of charity.  It is not done because you pity them and look down on them; it is done because you love them and feel compassion for them.

Compare this passage with the following hypothetical scenario:

A woman walks into the church with a Crockpot of hot, home-made soup.  She sets up her offering on the table and gets to work preparing the space for the homeless who will be coming in.  It is 5:30 and very cold outside.  The doors are locked, but she hears the shuffling of people on the outside.  The doors will open at 6, so they have to get busy to get everything ready.

At 6 pm, the pastor opens the door and the stiff, cold people wrapped in layers of poorly mended and unclean clothes shuffle in.  He lines the people up along the buffet so they each can get their dish, while the woman busies herself filling bowls with the hot, savory soup.  The gentleman next to her is putting together sandwiches, some turkey and some ham.

“It’s so sad,” the soup lady says to the sandwich guy.

“I know.  Everyone’s shivering.  We should have opened the door earlier,” the guy says.

These words startle the lady.  “But we weren’t ready yet.”

He smiles at the young man who just made it up to them.  The soup lady hands him a bowl, and prepares another.  The sandwich guy asks, “Would you like turkey or ham?”

“Ham, please,” he says in a gravelly voice that sounds like it doesn’t get much use.  The man takes one of the sandwiches heaping with ham, and asks him whether he’d like mayonnaise or mustard.  Before the young man can answer, the soup lady pipes in, “You see, it’s just so sad that all these poor people can’t find work.”

The young man’s cheeks color, but she doesn’t see him.  His gaze goes dark and his shoulders slouch.  He takes his sandwich and his soup, his milk and his apple, and even his little cookie into a far corner and eats in silence in the draftiest part of the church hall, while families and individuals gather under the blowing heat from the vents.

When everyone is served, the sandwich man tries to talk to him.  But the young man shakes his head.  “She don’t know,” he says.  “She don’t think.”

It’s not an accusation, but his voice is full of sorrow.  Neither of them will ever know that this man works twelve hours day, six days each week, working two back-breaking jobs.  The soup lady couldn’t imagine it.  Yet, he comes to the soup kitchen, because he doesn’t leave himself enough to have more than two meals a day.  Even working so hard, he cannot afford to because so much of that money he works so hard to earn has to go to his mother’s medical bills and his children’s tuition into the one private school that takes children with special needs.

The sandwich man tried to show love; the soup lady only felt pity.  Pity is not about love.  Pity is about making yourself feel better by exposing yourself to the misery of those who are so much worse off than you.  They’re not people; they’re certainly not brethren.

This is why I see pity as being the cousin to bullying, not to love.  Bullying is about making yourself feel better, too.  Instead of the passive harm you do to people when you pity them, you’re harming people actively, intentionally.  That’s the only difference I see between pity and bullying.  You’re harming people either way; you’re looking down on people either way.

Love isn’t about you.  Love is about giving yourself to others.  You may be called to give your heart or your time, your money or your ear.  But you are called to give.  Love—the pure love of Christ—is about recognizing the humanity in others and celebrating it.  You give not out of obligation, not because you feel sorry for them, but because you recognize their need and want to share yourself and your possessions with a fellow human being.  That’s charity.  Pity and charity should never be confused.