The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 4, 2012

James Whitford, guest columnist: Time to halt the handout

By James Whitford
Special to The Globe

JOPLIN, Mo. — After working diligently to connect charitable organizations and churches online to better steward distribution of resources, the time had finally come to implement the accountability component, to halt the handout and challenge some individuals to take a hand up.

With a curriculum in place to inspire the poor to dream of a better future, establish a life plan and attain measurable goals, I notified the network of Joplin organizations that some of the most “frequent fliers” would be flagged in the system and need to be in the class before assisted any longer.

Then “Dave” came into my office. He was homeless and had tried to get food from another organization, but the “accountability net” had caught him. He was visibly angry. I  I explained the class and how it could help. Not interested. I asked if he thought giving him food was really helping him. No response. And then I told him I would allow him to work an hour for a food voucher. He exploded: “Why should I have to work for my food?”

Want an eye-opener?

 Dave’s question was asked sincerely. He truly didn’t understand “will work for food.” Unfortunately, he chose not to work that day. Sadly, and in very short time, a food stamp card arrived in the mail for him.

More than $2.5 million in food stamps were distributed in Jasper County last month. And so it was the month before that. Unfortunately, as most know, abuse abounds. People in the know have shared with me the details about personal shoppers who fill up the grocery cart with what they need only to let the food stamp card holder check out at the register. Groceries and cash are exchanged just outside the door. There are details linking food stamp abuse to increased drug and alcohol use. One time I even stumbled upon a food stamp-for-pain medicine trade about to happen.

So I called the food stamp office locally and in Jefferson City. “Our private charity food bank network would like to know who is receiving food stamps,” I asked. No way. Confidentiality. “What about a signed release of information?”

No way. Confidentiality.

“It’s a federal thing,” I was told, because “it’s federal money.”

The government was never intended to exercise charity. No institution should ever intend to exercise charity. “Institutional charity” is a misnomer. Real charity only occurs person to person where compassion leads to relationship, encouragement, accountability and character-building challenge. The system failed us when it gave food stamps to a man who thought it absurd that he should work for his meal. And of no less importance, it failed Dave.

 Today, I saw him lying in the woods barely responsive after drinking a bottle of vodka. How did he pay for that?


James Whitford is executive director of Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission and administrator for the Joplin Area Ministerial Alliance Charity Tracker Network.