“Hidden in every act of compassion toward the poor is the danger that it will perpetuate the underlying causes of poverty. How do we keep our charity from delaying the structural changes that justice demands?” -David Hilfiker (“The Limits of Charity”)
In 2010, I began a personal critique of social change and how non-profits and charity organizations function in regards to such. I was a lonely voice in what I perceived to be the achievement culture which seemed to revolve around climbing the ladder to ever greater personal success. I could not make sense of how this culture could be so prevalent in service organizations which profess to aim to help people in need. I had been drawn to the work in order to learn and understand. I was not necessarily more noble than my peers but perhaps a bit more interested in the larger picture of social justice.
Without similar minded folks to bounce ideas off of, I began writing a journal about how the business model fails social justice oriented non-profits. It appeared to me the organizations structured themselves similar to for profit businesses. While it was not explicit, I interpreted the practices as functioning off supply and demand logic in order to compete for limited funding from various sources. The demand was the need of many suffering populations. The supply was whatever each organization marketed to its public and private funding sources as their unique solution to a real social problem. One particular tension that came about was the need for “success stories” to convince the affluent to invest in the services targeted to desperate individuals and families. I could not understand how you could truly emphasize success stories and neglect the structures and institutions that created the need in the first place. To me, the people requiring services had already been oppressed, marginalized, and deprived of basic needs. Who were we to claim they needed “fixing” and we were the ones to cure them of their inability to access housing, food, healthcare, or education? The issue is not with the people who are suffering.
During this formative time, I came across the writer David Hilfiker. It was a breath of fresh air to read his essay “The Limits of Charity.” In it he writes:
Soup kitchens and shelters started as emergency responses to terrible problems–to help ensure that people do not starve, or die from the elements. No one, certainly not their founders, ever considered these services as appropriate permanent solutions to the problems. But soup kitchens and food pantries are now our standard response to hunger; cities see shelters as adequate housing for the homeless. Our church-sponsored shelters can camouflage the fact that charity has replaced an entitlement to housing that was lost when the federally subsidized housing program was gutted twenty years ago. Our soup kitchens can mask unconscionable cuts in food stamps. Furthermore, if we are busy caring for the poor, who is going to do the time-consuming work of advocacy, of changing the system?…And what of charity’s toll on the recipients’ human dignity? Charity may be necessary, but charity–especially long-term charity–wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Try as we might to make our programs humane, it is still we who are the givers and they who are the receivers. Charity thus “acts out” inequality.
In reflecting on these ideas, I began asking myself questions like: how can we make personal gains from a system that oppresses many people while claiming to challenge that oppression? How do we stand up to institutions to pursue justice if we rely on those very institutions for our own livelihood? This is the non-profit dilemma I came to. I have come to call what most non-profits do “harm reduction“, a term that comes out of addiction work. One example is providing clean needles to heroine addicts to reduce the spread of disease. While this is necessary work, it does not get to the root of the problems. What I have always been interested in is radical change. This is no easy task, but I do believe it is worth striving for. The organization I worked for cost roughly $40,000 per person it served. While the services included some healthcare and case management, the largest service was housing. I wondered if there might be a better way to organize resources.
In examining the issue of homelessness, I realized the amount of housing isn’t the problem. What is the problem? Access to housing is the problem. Ok, what causes that problem? And so on. The well meaning who are generally underpaid and overworked, slide in and out of various roles, move up chains of command, and build their lives around the idea that these issues can be alleviated to a degree but solutions are impossible. I have not come across many who ask these kinds of questions. Instead of working to maintain funding, what non-profits and social services organizations should really be doing is making themselves obsolete.
I have found these ideas to be controversial. People want to feel they are making a difference. I completely understand this, but how do we create bigger picture visions of social change in order to truly affect the lives of the poor, working poor, and disenfranchised? Further, does making a living off these groups of people have an exploitative quality?
Perhaps with an actual attempt to create universal access to housing, those who are trained in social work could better use their energies to provide secondary services like healing the wounds that poverty inflicts (or perhaps this healing can only come from within the group that has experienced the pain?). Or maybe they could be the ones to act as “landlords” after the redistribution of housing. I have a few ideal ways of addressing homelessness, but to be sure there are many others. The issue lies in our collective inability to make decisions that affect our own lives.
David Harvey has said “Where are the main centers of political organization right now, which are “oppositional?” It’s mainly of course through non-governmental organizations. And non-governmental organizations are not revolutionary. They address questions of poverty or environment or something that has a certain kind of scale, but they don’t challenge the nature of the general order because the general order is what funds them. We’ve got a situation right now in which the main political institutions, though not oppositional expressed, are not actually able to mount a challenge to the hegemonic and dominant forms of power, which are currently ruling the world.” This is at the heart of my case for the non-profit dilemma.
Everything has been left to the market to decide, even which non-profits are worthy of funding. Everything has become a commodity-people, food, natural resources, labor, healthcare, education-and with this accomplishment we have lost a sense of what actually has value. Everything is for sale. Harvey goes on to offer a distinction between the “use value” and “market value” of housing. I think this is quite a valuable distinction in our culture, where the use value is rarely considered. There is no actual need for intermediary groups to administer housing through mortgage financing, private home ownership and the whole structure of the commodified world. The use value is not determined by a price tag. He offers a suggestion similar to my own conclusions:
My suggestion is to everybody: maximize the use-value provision character of the society; think about how to organize the provision of those use-values, and minimize the capacity of people to extract private wealth from an exchange-value system, which occasionally blows up like it did in 2007 and 2008 with disastrous consequences.
When I started questioning the intentions of the privileged folks who organize and run non-profits, I began to unpack these larger systemic issues that have to do with private capital. How many executive directors are willing to take such a stance? How many must remain obsequious to the unspoken rules of garnering funds from cocktail parties and galas? How many are able to actually challenge power in a meaningful way while maintaining funding? My guess is not very many. I have become an outsider, pushed to the margins for expressing my opinions in unwanted directions. I cannot sit silent any longer.
Arundhati Roy criticizes these trends on a more global scale in her book Capitalism A Ghost Story. I will end with where she ends:
We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality.
We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well as corporations.
As cap-ists and lid-ites, we demand:
One: An end to cross-ownership in businesses. For example weapons manufacturers…
Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure-water, supply, electricity, health and education-cannot be privatized.
Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.
Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth…
We are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs to be replaced.