Part of my training as a priest included an assignment at a soup kitchen in Anacostia, a poor section of Washington, D.C. Each Friday a classmate and I would spend the afternoon helping set up, serve and clean up after a free meal that was offered in the basement of a local Protestant church.
On the first day of our assignment, we met the Catholic nun who ran the operation, which fed between 200 and 500 persons each day. She explained that the numbers would fluctuate, and the pattern seemed to be that the group was the smallest on the days right after the arrival of welfare checks. The nun also said that the soup kitchen had a whosoever-will-may-come policy, meaning there was no means testing.
Sure enough. Whole families would arrive for their meal. I witnessed one person arriving in a taxi. Another couple told me they needed to eat quickly because they were planning to go shopping after dinner.
One Friday during Lent, my classmate and I worked in the kitchen as usual. After serving the meal and cleaning up, we did not eat in the kitchen, as was our custom, since it had served meat and Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Instead we went to a seafood pub just down the street.
As we enjoyed a simple fish dinner, something struck me about the nature of our charitable work. We knew that the pub's proprietor lived in the neighborhood and he and his family worked hard to keep the business afloat. It dawned on me that my classmate and I, and the numerous well-intentioned people who contributed food, money, and service to the soup kitchen, were his competitors. Just a block away, we provided a product and a service that made this man's efforts to provide for his own family more difficult.
This story illuminates the moral dilemma that charity to the needy poses. On the face of it a soup kitchen sounds like an unequivocal good. But this requires deeper examination. The first thing we must do, if we are serious in our desire to help the poor better their lot, is to consider the full effect of the programs we organize in their name.
When I worked in the soup kitchen, it pleased me to think of a person coming to us and leaving with a full stomach. Yet for many--perhaps even most--of our clients, the meal was a convenience, not a dire necessity. Perhaps we should have asked diners to help clean or prepare meals in exchange for their food. This would soon have separated those who really needed the meal from those for whom it was a mere convenience.
We must also examine the extent to which such programs help or hinder structural progress in poor areas. Supposing we had served plainer meals--with an emphasis on nutrition over taste and variety. Would we have offered less competition to the fish house proprietor? Would another inexpensive restaurant have opened up--and hired local residents who were then unemployed?
The danger of private charity is that it does not make the recipient part of the division of labor. Therein lies the Samaritan's dilemma: The expectation of charity can lead people to behave in ways that keep them in poverty; their breaking free sometimes requires our withholding help. Among religious leaders, when we talk of charity, we often speak of the sanctity of the human person. But in our efforts to help the children of God, we ought not overlook the virtue of work. We ought not overlook the dignity that is earned when a person puts his labor to good use. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, sloth is a sin. God gave Adam and Eve the Earth and its wonders as a gift, but He expected them to mix their labor with the resources He provided.
When charity creates a disincentive for an able-bodied person to work, it leads this person down the wrong path. It encourages indolence. Real work provides the individual with the vehicle for a productive and virtuous life. It gives a person self-esteem and a role to play in society.
When government welfare is scaled back, as it surely will be, private charity will be required to an even greater extent. But we will need to be careful about which charities we support. How to know the difference? Bad charity is characterized by the failure to look deeply enough to discover the structural and moral causes of poverty. Men and women of faith will be called to concern themselves not just with the material needs of poor individuals but with their spiritual needs as well.