Why People in Need Should Be Treated Like Children

The following is an interview that was published November 2, 2011 in The Palm Beach Letter. The subject: charity.

Ellen: In the office the other day, I heard Tom say, “Mark doesn’t believe in charity.” Is that true?

Mark: If I ever said I don’t believe in charity, I misspoke. I believe in charity. But I also believe that charity can be dangerous.

Ellen: Dangerous? How?

Mark: Charity has the potential to create dependency, destroy initiative, and promote entitlement. If you give a beggar a five-dollar bill every day for nine days, then give him one dollar on the tenth day… chances are, he’ll ask, “Where’s my other four dollars?”

Ellen: That’s pretty cynical.

Mark: I don’t think so. Cultural economists tell us that human populations tend to do what they get rewarded for doing. When you provide unwed mothers or unemployed workers or homeless people with substantial financial subsidies, you are, in effect, rewarding them for such behaviors. You are creating an ever-expanding culture of people who feel entitled to stay pregnant, jobless, and homeless – and be paid for it.

Ellen: You seem to have a dim view of human nature.

Mark: Not at all. Human beings are intelligent. We are always looking to accomplish our goals with the least amount of effort. If we can meet our expenses more easily by accepting charity than by working, we will do so. And we will justify not working by explaining how we are entitled to what we are getting.

Ellen: [Laughs] But you do seem cynical.

Mark: I would say disappointed. Too many people exercise their minds only to justify their actions. And their actions are prompted by impulses, not reason.

Ellen: So what does your reason say about charity?

Mark: It says that it is dangerous but natural – even inevitable.

Ellen: How is it natural?

Mark: Even Ayn Rand, the ultimate proponent of self-interest, admitted to helping people and causes she admired. She said she did so out of “self-interest,” and because it made her “feel good.” And that’s my very point. I believe that charity is natural and good in its natural context.

Ellen: I’m not sure what you mean by “natural context.”

Mark: Think about the cycle of life. We are born into this world as helpless creatures. We survive our infancy because of the charitable impulses of our parents. A baby’s laugh and cry provoke very fundamental feelings. Our responsiveness is built into our DNA. In primitive societies, children grow up feeling grateful to their parents and exercise that feeling by being charitable to their parents when they become enfeebled. This is the most basic example of how charity works in a natural culture. But today, the natural family has been all but destroyed. In place of the natural charity of parent and child, we have the very unnatural charity of tax-based social programs. And that’s what I have a problem with – institutional charity.

Ellen: What is it about institutional charity that makes it bad?

Mark: To administer charity properly, there are three things you must do. I call these “the three obligations of charitable giving.” First, you must make it clear that the recipient is being helped only for a limited period of time. As time passes, he is expected not only to take care of himself, but also to take care of others – to pay forward the charity, as it were. Second, he must do something to merit the charity. He must be humble. He must ask politely. He must explain his circumstances. And he must provide a plan for paying back or paying forward the charity he hopes to get. Thirdly, when he gets the charity, he must show sincere and demonstrable thankfulness and demonstrate how the charity is helping him.

Institutional charities, in my experience, don’t do these three things. In fact, they do quite the opposite. They do not require the recipients to demonstrate that they are worthy of charity. Need is the only criterion. They don’t ask the recipient to pay back or pay forward what they are given. And they don’t demand gratitude. These are all serious omissions, in my opinion.

Ellen: Okay, so what kind of charitable activities do you participate in?

Mark: First and most important, I take care of my family and myself. The bulk of my charitable work is in Nicaragua.

Ellen: Why Nicaragua? Why not do charity work in the States?

Mark: In Nicaragua, it is easier for me to give responsibly because the need is so obvious and the recipients are hardworking and honest and grateful. I set up a foundation down there called The Ford Family Foundation, and have had a lot of success. We are involved in all sorts of activities: We have a very active micro-lending program; we have an English language school; we provide assistance to schools and school children; and we are building a community center. All these are done in accordance with the principles I mentioned above.

Ellen: Has your implementation of those principles been effective?

Mark: Well… it is still a work in progress. For example, we support four schools in Nicaragua right now. Every year, we give all the children in the schools their uniforms and their school supplies. We’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. And we’ve already noticed a problem.

Ellen: What’s the problem?

Mark: The children now feel entitled to get new uniforms every year. Poor kids in the U.S. don’t even get new uniforms every year. I never had new uniforms either. But now, these people we have been helping expect new uniforms. Now they feel entitled to it.

Ellen: So how do you solve that?

Mark: Well, it is my belief that when you give someone something, you have to be very much involved with the person you’re giving to. You have to let them know that this is something they’re not entitled to. You have to say it when you give it to them. And you teach them to be thankful. It’s the same thing you do with children. People say it’s paternalistic when you’re giving charity and treat people like children, but I don’t agree. I think if people are in the situation of need, they should be treated like children.

So with the work I do in Nicaragua, we are applying my “three obligations of charitable giving.” First, we are explaining that the clothing and supplies are no longer available to everyone just because they are needed or wanted. To get shoes, for example, you must ask to be a part of the program and then you must contribute four hours of work cleaning up or painting the school, something like that. If you want a uniform, you have to work another four hours. Supplies? The same thing. And we will be asking every child to write a personal thank you note. We hope that this will teach them that charity must be merited, earned, paid for, and appreciated. It is not an entitlement.

Ellen: That sounds like a good way to combat the problems associated with giving and entitlement that you were talking about.

Mark: I hope it is.