Charity in Entitlement Era: Speaking Truth to Paupers

I've returned from a trip to a southern coastal city battered by Hurricane Katrina.  It is my third trip as part of my church's effort to help those who were wiped out and have no means to get back on their feet. I'm scrubbing out details because some of what I say may hurt unnecessarily those who have been the recipients of aid or have rendered assistance, something I've no interest in doing.  Neither do I wish to leave unsaid some of the obvious and nettlesome issues revolving around helping the impoverished that really need to be considered.

Our mission was to rebuild a home destroyed by the storm surge.  We raised money, made plans, recruited work teams.  Churches in my hometown, and a church in the devastated city coordinated efforts to house and feed a platoon of skilled and unskilled volunteers.  Challenges, such as poorly poured foundations, missing materials and errors made by inexperienced folk swinging hammers for the first time in their lives were met and overcome in heroic fashion.

The heat is amazing.  Midwestern summers can be brutal, but the hot southern sun and a humidity just shy of rain made sweat just pour out, soaking my shirt, shorts, shoes, even my tool pouch.  I ate like a horse and drank Gatorade like a Kennedy drinks Scotch and still lost four pounds in just three 12 hour work days.  Other volunteers had worked in that heat for a week or more experienced the same and more.

I am very proud of my fellow volunteers.  It was as much a privilege to serve with them as it was to serve in the armed forces.  They were Americans at their best, Christians at their most lovely.  They were and continue to be Christ made real.  At any given time there are 30 to 75 volunteers staged in just one church, ready to lend back and body to the difficult task or restoring these clobbered homes, a story repeated all over the battered coastlines.

Unfortunately I must report that I am far less impressed by those benefiting from the volunteer largesse.  The soon—to—be owner of the new home we build is sweet and charming, but when I compare this individual's actions to what I or my wife would do in the same situation, I can't help but be downright put out.

If my home were destroyed, and volunteers poured in by bus, van and car to help me rebuild, God strike me if I am not the first person on the jobsite and the last one to leave.  If I still had a job, I'd work until I had to leave, and rush back and hammer until sunset.  No volunteer would outwork me so long as the Lord gave strength.

My wife is not equipped to climb onto a roof or frame a wall, but I can assure you no volunteer would lack for a cool drink or something to eat.  She'd cook and launder and make sandwiches.  She lavish motherly attention on them while they labored for our benefit.

I can't imagine my sons or daughters, or grandchildren or nieces or nephews, in—laws and friends not spending hours upon hours on the project such as they could.  They may not be able to contribute financially, but they would lift, tote and hammer until the work was done.

I don't say this to exult myself, my family or my friends.  This is simply how things are done.  It is the presumption of my culture in such circumstances.  My church is filled with people for whom this scenario would be played out in identical fashion.  It is a bedrock ethic we share.  What I described is simply what would be expected.  If any of the men of my church caught me goofing off in air—conditioned comfort while the sounds of construction echoed through my neighborhood, I'd be confronted in short order, and rightly so.  I would work like a mule so as not to be ashamed.

My experience over the last several years has shown scant evidence of what we used to think of as the noble poor, good people who are otherwise hardworking.  All they ever need is a break, a chance, an opportunity.  The noble poor have been supplanted by folk who are poor because they lack the skills to be self—sufficient, and most vexing, expectant that others will fill in the gaps between what they need and what they have. The English used to distinguish the merely poor from those who became abjectly dependent on public aid by calling the latter paupers, and imposing certain civil disabilities upon them.

The expectations among America's new paupers have metastasized.  Now, not only ought needs be met, but desires accommodated as well.  In our brief foray into disaster relief, tales have surfaced where uninsured people left with nothing more than a sandy concrete slab have lobbied their benefactors vigorously for better quality kitchen cabinets or hinted strongly for a different style of flooring than that which had been donated.  My own experience parallels these anecdotes. 

I would not expect much appreciation if we blew into town and erected a ramshackle shanty in which Germans wouldn't house prisoners of war.  That said, the house we are replacing was pretty crummy before the storm and is being replaced with one that is as large as that occupied by the rather large family of my youth pastor.  It will likely be better appointed.  In that situation I'd keep my mouth shut, accept the kind gift, and make improvements as my lot in life improved.  I'd hope that my expertise would be in shouldering what load I could rather than in asking for more than what is offered.

In the defense of our beneficiaries, what one feels and what one expresses are complicated and difficult to parse.  I absolutely do not doubt the sincerity of the affection or appreciation, given by the people for whom we build, nor the genuineness of relief as the crumpled husk of stinking, ancient timber is replaced with fresh, modern home. 

What abrades the giving spirit is the feeling that they bear no responsibility nor ought to feel a need to participate more robustly in their own redemption. 

I suppose it's class we are talking about.  The noble poor portrayed in vintage literature have dignity.  The ignobility of being poor wasn't in the lack of money or resources, but was in being thought of as lazy.  Heartlessness toward the poor took the form of depriving someone willing to be self—sufficient of that opportunity, not failing to heap upon them effortless bounty.  The poor expressed their sincerest gratitude for the chance to fill their own belly though certainly grateful for a meal.  Old movies showed the poor offering to do odd jobs and wistful for an education. None longed for a permanent patron.

The brutal truth is that a wide swath of the modern poor are to varying degrees lazy and actively dull, poisoned with the notion that their comfort and survival is at least partially the responsibility of strangers.  Worse, they lack the prick of conscience that there is something undignified about accepting charity that exceeds whatever minimum you need.  In my experience, charity isn't really seen as charity by today's 'disadvantaged community,' it is somehow something owed and they are satisfied to sit idle until it arrives. It's as if the culture among the poor has been stripped of any duty to do for oneself and one's kith and kin.

Ironically, Midwesterners with our determination set against the world will lavish aid on anyone who will make even the feeblest attempt to better themselves.  We are a bit embarrassed by the thanks of someone whom we perceive 'there but by the grace of God' we might be.  Conversely, our sense of mission is quickly eroded when those we help fall limp in the face of their share of the task.  Many of us baking in the humid torpor stood in slack—jawed amazement at the brazen lack of initiative demonstrated by the folks we are helping.  I sensed bitterness creeping in, taking the joy out of the task.

I have no idea how to nudge those trapped in the entitlement mentality to regain their dignity.  How do we teach them to desire the respect of the Protestant/Midwesterner over the sickening pity of the Left Coast Secularist?  How does one learn to celebrate and value self—sufficiency over chronic dependency when even the poor's clerics preach that the burden of the poor is not their own, but that of others?

His Majesty Jesus Christ did not qualify His call to charity. Whether one is homeless because one is foolish or because they caught a bad break doesn't change the fact that Christ commanded His followers to give them shelter.  I solace my irritation knowing that when the paint dried and the concrete cures, a homeless person is restored as Christ commanded.  Every nail I sunk in the hot sun in concert with my brethren was done much more for His sake as for the beneficiary, and from Him we'll receive our reward. 

Still yet, I feel that the whole job is undone if, while we restore homes we are unable to restore the notion that grace is a gift given and not a wage paid, and that owning one's failures is part of being a grown—up.  Too few are expecting, much less exhorting, the poor to grow up.

The author, who has previously written for The American Thinker, has requested anonymity.