Posted by: Dan | March 22, 2006

Charity as the Exchange of Consumer Goods and The Commodification of Homeless Youth

[W]hat has been absent for us is the affirmation of a possible apprehension of this world beyond that as a field of objects considered as pragmata.
~ George Grant, In Defense of America

In an essay entitled The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger argues that technology is far more than a mere tool used by people to accomplish certain tasks. Technology is actually a means of revelation (an “enframing”) that shapes how we see and understand the world. And the problem with technology is that it causes us to see things only in terms of their usefulness as means to certain ends (everything becomes a “standing-reserve”). Thus, as the quote from George Grant argues, things are only meaningful if they are useful, they are considered as “pragmata”. Consequently, in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann argues that we have transformed meaningful things into commodities. Things do not have any sort of transcendent being or inherent meaning, they are only meaningful to the extent that they can be used or consumed.

However, this enframing does not only impact the way people treat the world of objects outside of themselves. It also becomes the way in which people understand other people, and even the way in which people understand themselves. As a result of this enframing people are treated as commodities, as objects of exchange, as goods to be consumed — and people who cannot be fit into this grid are further dehumanised and ostracised. Consider the crisis of meaning involved in our interactions with the handicapped and with seniors. Consider the crisis of meaning undergone by those who become terminally ill.

I believe that this reduction of people to goods within an ever increasing mentality of consumption has had a significant and negative impact upon how we journey with homeless youth. There are two consequences that I want to highlight: (1) the way in which society treats charity as an exchange of goods; and (2) the way in which social service agencies treat homeless youth as commodities. Sadly, Christians are just as implicit in all this as people of other faiths. So let me draw out each of these consequences a little.

1. Charity as the Exchange of Consumer Goods

Within modern technological and capitalist societies, charity is primarily understood as donating money to certain causes. Of course this is already problematic from a Christian perspective. Jesus calls us to not only give alms, but to also clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and invite strangers into our homes. Yet somehow the Church has decided it would be best to outsource these activities to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and social workers. No wonder the Western Church is in crisis. When we outsource activities that are so central to our identity we can hardly go on living Christianly in other areas. We find the demands of Christianity too demanding, so we pay others to act Christianly for us. And it is this that we call charity.

But our charity is even worse than this. Because we have such a broad selection of charities to choose from, we look for the charity that will give us the most bang for our buck. We want to give money to successful charities, we want to give our money to a shelter that is getting kids off of the streets, off of drugs, and into the workforce — we don’t want to waste our money on an agency that isn’t very good at those things. This decision making process makes charity into the exchange of goods. We do not give money freely, we expect something in return. This is why social service agencies regularly put together booklets of stories for donors. They provide us with money and we provide them with pictures and success stories “from the front-lines” and, voila, the exchange of goods is complete. Sad stories, stories of failure or loss, are deliberately edited out, so we are left with a satisfying, but essentially fictional, exchange.

2. The Commodification of Homeless Youth

This fictionality then goes on to impact the way homeless youth are generally treated in social service agencies. Homeless youth are treated as commodities, not as persons. Youth are put onto sobriety plans, job plans, and housing plans. Should such plans be too difficult for them, they are expelled from the program and sent back onto the street. And this is done because donors won’t provide money for agencies that aren’t getting kids clean and sober, getting kids jobs, and getting kids housed. Thus, youth that cannot be turned into commodities in this exchange are kicked out of the program. Unfortunately, this means that far more kids are kicked back on to the street than are housed. This is so because these kids generally need a lot more than a shelter bed and a plan.

These kids need to be treated as persons, loved as persons, and respected as persons. And that means we should engage with them with humility, following Christ’s model of suffering love, vulnerability, and helplessness. This means journeying with kids in the midst of their addictions, loving them in the midst of their violence, and suffering with them in the midst of their brokenness. And, if we are committed to these things, chances are we’ll have trouble convincing donors that we are “successful” as an agency. So we don’t commit to these things.

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