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Does Charity Entrench Poverty?

Both Amy Welborn and Fr. Jim Tucker refer to the article, Do helping hands in Appalachia do more harm than good?, in the National Catholic Reporter. The author, Lucy Fuchs, questions the benefit of the charitable work done in the Appalachians. Has charity entrenched poverty?

When Fr. Beiting first came to Kentucky in the late ’40s, he was appalled at how badly many people lived. At first, he just gave people food and clothing and arranged housing for them. Then he organized fundraising and gathered volunteers, trying to reach out to anyone in need, not only giving them help but trying to maintain their dignity.

In those days, the people of East Kentucky were either coal miners, disabled or unemployed, or on their way north or west out of the state. Fr. Beiting fell in love with the natural beauty of this part of the country and he genuinely loved the people. There were few Catholics in East Kentucky, and people were often suspicious of Catholics, especially Catholic priests, so he had to work to overcome that problem, too. He even took to street preaching to show that Catholics too were Christian, and he named his organization “Christian” (not “Catholic”) Appalachian Project, making it clearly ecumenical, as it is today.

Things have changed dramatically since Fr. Beiting’s initial work in the ’40s and ’50s. For one thing, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, and the front lines of the war were right in Appalachia. People came to Appalachia for many reasons. Some came to take pictures and write articles about the deprived mountain people sitting on their rickety porches while their dirty, raggedy children stayed home from school. Others came and volunteered their medical and educational help. But the most significant changes came through government aid in many forms.

These government programs probably helped some people, but ultimately they destroyed the spirit of the proud mountain residents, who used to disdain any outside aid. Today most observers will say that the single greatest harm to the Appalachian people can be said in one word: welfare.

My sons have participated in our Diocesan work camp. For one week, high school students live in a rural, economically poor community, sleeping on the floor of a local school. During the day they work to repair homes of local residents, who are often elderly. Similar to the situation Ms. Fuchs noted in her article, these residents often have younger able-bodied relatives who do not lend a hand. Part of the preparation to attend the work camp is being prepared to see things that seem incongruous with poverty. A young relative may be driving an upscale car. Grandchildren may have the latest electronic gaming systems. The work camp participants are prepared to move beyond the frustration and confusion of this picture and focus on the very real, immediate needs of the resident they are helping.

The first summer my sons participated, my oldest was working on the home of an elderly woman. Her teenage grandson sat in the family room watching television as the teens around him steadily worked. He asked my son why they were working on his grandmother’s home. My son explained this was a way to serve the community. The grandson’s response was, “I didn’t know Crackers ever got community service!” How sad. He didn’t know that people really do look outside of themselves and seek to serve for reasons other than satisfying a judicial sentence.

Many factors contribute to poverty: poor education, dysfunctional family life, breakdown of family structures, alcoholism, drug abuse and so many others. It is erroneous to believe providing food and shelter will cure poverty. The root causes must be addressed. However, immediate needs have to be met as well. If we ignore the acute hunger and homelessness of poverty because we are solely focused on a long-term solution, many will suffer while we ponder the possibilities at our drawing boards. This suffering will hamper the implementation of any long-term solution.

The only answer is to simultaneously attack short-term needs and long-term solutions. Charity must address the acute issues of food, clothing, and shelter, but always with an eye towards eventual self-sufficiency through education and family stability. As always, the devil is in the details. How to do this is the burning question. As Ms. Fuchs notes, there is no easy answer.


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