Cover Story: Blessed Are the Handouts

Why some Christian poverty experts believe we should give cash to the poor, no strings attached.

One year, instead of buying my dad the usual unattractive necktie for Christmas, we bought him a goat. He loved the goat, mainly because it was not for him but given in his name to an impoverished family in Kenya.

Many of us know the holiday rite, by now as predictable as the turning of the seasons: making donations to the poor overseas on behalf of loved ones, aided by gift catalogs from nonprofits like Heifer International, World Vision, and Compassion International that reveal happy pictures of children hugging sheep.

That Kenyan goat launched a Christmas tradition for my family. Over the years, we’ve graduated from goats to dairy cows to water buffaloes. But there is a corollary to our tradition. While my parents would purchase a farm animal for the poor in a family member’s name, they would often give the same family member a cash gift to spend however they liked. It raises the question: Do we trust each other with cash more than we trust the poor?

Gift catalogs are popular not just because of their playful optimism (what could be more fun than buying baby chicks for little girls?), but also because they resolve an unspoken dilemma we feel about giving money to the poor. Money obviously gives recipients the greatest freedom of choice, but they might misuse it. A goat feels safer.

As an economist and a Christian, I too feel this dilemma. Part of it comes from seemingly competing New Testament values. While Jesus teaches us “give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30) and that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), he also created boundaries against manipulation (Matt. 12:46 ff., 16:23, Luke 23:8–9).

Likewise, Paul encourages Christians to “be generous on every …

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