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The giving season is fast approaching, and many of us are making plans to donate our time, talents and treasure to help those in need. Helping others is an integral part of the American character. Compassion experts and fieldworkers argue that much of these good intentions fuel a toxic form of charity that fails to offer lasting change.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the War on Poverty, he intended for these new efforts to be a “hand up,” not a “handout.” In hindsight, while the War on Poverty introduced massive increases in welfare spending, the American poverty rate remained at 15%, right where it stood two years after Johnson’s effort was announced. President Bill Clinton, before passing welfare reform legislation, shared that welfare is “a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence.”

Private charity can create the same cycles of dependency. According to two books, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, much of the assistance Americans provide to those in need is doing more harm than good. Religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible. These authors argue that charity should not be measured by good intentions but by restored lives.

But how do we determine if our helping is actually hurting another person? When Helping Hurts suggests that we begin by trying to define poverty.

Thought Experiment: Define ‘Poverty’

Corbett and Fikkert give seminars around the world and ask their attendees to define poverty. Wealthy developed world audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things when defining poverty: lack of money, food and access to clean water, for example.

The poor talk about material things, but they also emphasize the psychological and social nature of poverty. “When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior,” shares a woman from Uganda in a World Bank publication called Voices of the Poor. Material gifts may help in the short term, but they are just as likely to accentuate this woman’s feelings of inferiority.

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The result of these exchanges reminds me of the “Jesus Comes at Christmas” trips our family would take to some of the relatively poor families in our North Jersey suburb. These were quick drop-offs of holiday food baskets that included toys for the kids, but it was hard not to have a bit of a savior mentality as we drove house to house. In the light of this exchange, we all knew who was playing the part of Jesus.

I vividly remember the feeling of disappointment when a young child answered the door and sheepishly accepted our gift basket and closed the door quickly without any of the appreciation that we were all secretly expecting to receive.

The problem was that we had no relationship with these families except to play Santa Claus one day a year. Looking back, both families were a bit worse off by the awkward exchange. Our family left disappointed by the thankless welfare mentality we observed, and any feelings of superiority we harbored at the beginning of the expedition were only reinforced. The receiving family had to endure the humiliation of another unknown do-gooder family showing up at their doorstep on their journey to save the world.

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Determine What Needs Must Be Met

Corbett and Fikkert suggest that those who desire to help should start by discerning the type of need that exists. “Relief” can be defined as urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid. Immediate support is needed after a natural disaster or when a woman seeks refuge from a physically abusive relationship.

But relief is no longer needed when individuals have the opportunity to help themselves. After the crisis has been averted, it is important to move quickly into “Rehabilitation” and “Development.” These next stages require the “helpers” to move into a partnership role and allow the “helped” to participate and plan their own recovery.

However, relief is relatively easy to administer, whereas rehabilitation and development require much more time and effort. Painting a house, writing a check, or dropping off a food basket can all be done in a short time period and make for great Kodak moments. Development takes years or decades and often endures as many steps backward as there are forward.

Distinguishing between “Relief” and “Rehabilitation and Development” can also be very challenging. Does having electricity cut off at a poor family’s home require a relief response? Both books suggest this depends in part on the degree to which the person was responsible for their terrible situation. The sad fact is that some people are not ready to seek rehabilitation or claim any responsibility for their condition. For example, it’s worth reconsidering why the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol is so poor.

Many of those who would like to help lack the time and expertise to ensure their time and talents are being used effectively. We can, however, begin to learn how to identify charities that are able to help those in need make the transition from relief to rehabilitation and development.

This holiday season, consider this Oath for Compassionate Service developed by Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries:

  1. I will never do for others what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  2. I will limit my one-way giving to emergency situations and seek always to find ways and means for legitimate exchange.
  3. I will seek ways to empower the poor through hiring, lending, and investing and use grants sparingly as incentives that reinforce achievements.
  4. I will put the interests of the poor above my own (or organizational) self-interest even when it may be costly.
  5. I will take time to listen and carefully assess both expressed and unspoken needs so that my actions will ultimately strengthen rather than weaken the hand of those I would serve.
  6. Above all, to the best of my ability, I will do no harm.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

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