Accountability

Does the program demand accountability from the people it serves?

A century ago, when individuals applied for material assistance, charity volunteers tried first to "restore family ties that have been sundered" and "reabsorb in social life those who for some reason have snapped the threads that bound them to other members of the community." Instead of immediately offering help, charities asked, "Who is bound to help in this case?" Mary Richmond of the Baltimore Charity Organizing Society summed up in 1897 the wisdom of a century: "Relief given without reference to friends and neighbors is accompanied by moral loss. Poor neighborhoods are doomed to grow poorer whenever the natural ties of neighborliness are weakened by well-meant but unintelligent interference."

Today, before developing a foundation project or contributing to a private charity, we should ask: "Does it work through families, neighbors, and religious or community organizations, or does it supersede them?" For example, studies show that many homeless alcoholics have families, but they do not want to be with them. When homeless shelters provide food, clothing, and housing without asking hard questions, aren't they subsidizing disaffiliation and enabling addiction? Instead of giving aid directly to homeless men, why not work on reuniting them with brothers, sisters, parents, wives, or children?

We should ask, as well, whether other programs help or hurt. It's good to help an unmarried teenager mother, but much such aid now offers a mirage of independence. A better plan is to reunite her whenever possible with those on whom she actually depends, whether she admits it or not: her parents and the child's father. It's good to give Christmas presents to poor children, but when the sweet-minded "helper" shows up with a shiny new fire truck that outshines the second-hand items a poor single mom put together, the damage is done. A better plan is to bulwark the beleaguered mom by enabling her to provide a better present. Genuine accountability demands nothing less.