Hand Out Vs. Hand Up
It’s been over two years since Jason Stout and I started up No Poor Among Them. What is No Poor Among Them, exactly? An initiative? A podcast? A blog? Yes, to all of those things. But in my mind, I wanted it to be something more. I wanted No Poor Among Them to draw upon the examples of Latter-day Saints around the world who are working hard to build Zion, and in turn have that inspire listeners and readers to do what they can to eliminate poverty and suffering in the world.
Many of you may recognize the phrase “no poor among them” from the description of a “Zion” people described in the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price: “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). Zion has always been a central yearning for members of the Church. We beckon the coming of the Savior by building Zion now, and not simply assume that such a community will come about after Christ comes.
After interviewing several wonderful people in the past year, an interesting concept was mentioned by many of the guests: the idea of lending a hand up rather than a hand out. At first, I thought, “Of course this is the right approach. Not only does it stretch a donor dollar further, but it enables people to lift themselves out of debilitating poverty.” But as I thought about it more, I started asking myself, “What exactly is a hand out? When does something constitute a hand out, and when does it become a hand up?” Now, I am no development expert, nor am I an expert when it comes to understanding the teachings of Christ, but these are some thoughts I have had on the subject over the past couple of years.
Are We Not All Beggars
We are often told as members of the Church to be self-reliant. On the Church’s website, it says the following about self-reliance: “Self-reliance is a simple concept that encourages each of us to take responsibility for our own needs—physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and economic.” I understand that it is important to work for what we have. All of us have probably known people who—at least from our limited perspective—make their own lives difficult or others’ lives difficult because they have fostered the idea that the world owes them. But what about those who work incredibly hard during their lives and are still not able to make ends meet economically? Surely we can’t assume that aiding people who don’t have the basic necessities of life is a hand out. The definition on the Church’s website includes many facets of our lives. Let’s consider economic self-reliance. In a globalized economy where each of us represents one player among billions, conditions can be such that no matter how hard we work, or how badly we want to work, the economic system may or may not oblige. In other words, there are many factors and many actors at work in our effort to be self-reliant. And there are many of these factors over which we have little or no control. We are co-dependent upon an economic system that is merciful to few and merciless to many.
King Benjamin put it this way in the Book of Mormon:
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
The Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan cannot rightfully be seen as giving a hand out, even though he gave money and the man did not work for it. He simply saw a need that someone had, and knew that the man could not fill that need on his own. This parable is significant. To me it teaches that when we see a need we can fill, fill that need. Yes, we are all beggars, but as President Kimball suggested, we are often called upon to be the Lord’s angels.
I have recently become aware of a charity called Give Directly that simply gives families money in developing countries. No strings attached; no gimmicks. The families are chosen and they receive $1,000 directly into their bank account. The concept behind this charity is that the families know far better what it would take to lift them out of poverty than any well-meaning local or foreign charity. NPR’s Planet Money team explored the effectiveness of such a charity against a well established charity in Heifer International. The results, not surprisingly, show that poverty is multi-faceted, and that no single approach is guaranteed to lift people out of poverty. Planet Money did a follow-up episode on Give Directly, which dissects the data further. A bit of a spoiler, the Give Directly model worked in several instances. With that initial influx of cash, families were better off in the long run. Once the successful families received the money, they used their newly-found talents wisely and lifted themselves out of poverty. In another example, the state of Utah has been lauded by their approach at eliminating homelessness. The approach is to simply provide housing for the homeless. Doing so costs less than the previous system and yields better results. Now, many would see the approach of Give Directly and the state of Utah as a hand out. After all, these people did not work for this money. Yet, the people are lifted to a higher economic plane in life, thus eliminating—at least to some degree—some of the economic inequalities they face in life. So, is this a hand out or a hand up? In my view, hand outs and hand ups are not so much based on what the giver does, but the receiver. Thus, giving people food or money or a free education without directly working for that aid can provide a hand up and lead people to economic self-reliance, if the recipient is wise with the gift, and if other variables outside of his/her control fall into place. In fact, simply giving money can be one of the most efficient ways to lift people out of poverty. It removes barriers such as oversight from the giver, criteria upon which the money must be spent, and administrative costs to keep tabs on the charitable gift. This is not to say that some methods of giving aren’t empirically better than others, but that as givers we could stand to be much more informed of our choices.
How Much Should We Give
It is hard to imagine a God who would allow starvation, disease, human trafficking, and other terrible realities on this earth. Why does this happen? Latter-day Saints literally believe that the starving little boy in Afghanistan, or the 10 year old Thai girl who is trafficked and raped several times each day, are our brothers and sisters. We cannot reach our full potential on this earth while knowing such injustices are happening and doing nothing, and neither can these victims of social injustice. Surely God weeps when He sees these travesties going on in the world, and mourns further still when He sees people who profess to follow Him indifferent to these realities. To build a Zion community, each of us has to reach beyond ourselves. Elder Joe J. Christensen addressed this topic very well in the April 1999 General Conference of the Church:
The more our hearts and minds are turned to assisting others less fortunate than we, the more we will avoid the spiritually cankering effects that result from greed, selfishness, and overindulgence. Our resources are a stewardship, not our possessions. I am confident that we will literally be called upon to make an accounting before God concerning how we have used them to bless lives and build the kingdom.
So to what degree do we do this? Elder Christensen shares the words of C. S. Lewis to answer. He said: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. … If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, … they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
What is Self-Reliance
Given that we are all beggars, is self-reliance even possible? If so, is it even a good thing? In 1927, Elder Orson F. Whitney clarified. “Self-reliance is a good thing, if not carried too far. But self-assurance, self-sufficiency, self-conceit, is a bad thing. There is no such thing as absolute independence. We depend, upon one another, and all are dependent upon God.” Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, October 1927, p.147
President Marion G. Romney further made this point in a 1982 conference address: “We are all self-reliant in some areas and dependent in others. Therefore, each of us should strive to help others in areas where we have strengths. At the same time, pride should not prevent us from graciously accepting the helping hand of another when we have a real need.”
Thus, paradoxically, self-reliance has more to do with a community than it has to do with ones’ self. We need each other. Trying to make it on our own is not self-reliance, it’s self-indulgence and hubris. Until we are all of one heart, one mind, living righteously, with no poor among us (Moses 7:18) we as a people will never be self-reliant.