During a symposium of social workers recently, I encountered a jarring reminder of how far the country has traveled in thinking about welfare. A session on at-risk youths had been given the title A hand up not a handout. I thought I knew what that cliché meant but found myself mystified.
The speaker, a young manager of a shelter for homeless teens, explained: When the kids come into the shelter, he said, we give them everythingfood, sleeping accommodation, clothing, medicines, counseling. To his way of thinking, providing everything is a hand up. A handout would be giving only one thing, say, food.
But the phrase originally meant that it was bad policy to simply give things away to the needy. Better to establish constructive quid pro quo exchanges. Aid recipients would be asked to set the table or mop the floor to earn supper or a bed. These tasks cultivated skills, a work ethic and a sense of accomplishment.
One problem with handouts is that if you offer something for nothing, the numbers lining up for it expand indefinitely. In 1963 the U.S. secretary of agriculture assured lawmakers that federal food stamps could be expanded over a period of years to about 4 million needy people. Fifty years later the countrys population had not even doubled, but this handout had grown to 47.6 million recipientsand in a time of economic recovery.
Handouts can leave recipients less capable of taking care of themselves by lowering the drive to work, encouraging recipients to have children they cant support, or enabling addicts to continue indulging.
Older generations were aware of these dangers. Octavia Hill spent a lifetime helping Londons poor in the late 19th century and concluded that personal relationships and quid pro quo arrangements were vital. I have often, she wrote, felt bound to urge, not only the evils of indiscriminate almsgiving, but the duty of withholding all such gifts as the rich have been accustomed to give to the poor. Hill pioneered a system of housing for the poor that required punctual payment of modest rents, in buildings purchased by philanthropic investors. When tenants became unemployed, they were given maintenance work.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was clear as well. Continued dependence upon relief, he said in 1935, induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. Yet government programs, being shallow and impersonal, tend to drift into handouts. They are like the superficial giver who drops a dollar into the beggars cup and walks on, feeling self-satisfied.
A hand up is what Habitat for Humanity offers. Recipients must contribute sweat equity by spending 300 hours building the home. They make payments on a modest, no-interest loan. The Habitat chapter in my town of Sandpoint, Idaho, has built 17 homes since 1991. Sixteen of those families are still living in the houses, with two having paid off their loans in full.
To thrive, human beings need healthy expectations and purposeful challenges. In todays era of trillion-dollar handouts, its time to resurrect past wisdom and find ways to offer a hand up instead.