Pope Francis sells excess to help the poor, and maybe we should too

Pope Francis sells excess to help the poor, and maybe we should too November 19, 2014

Pope Francis in March 2013 b

For all of the institutional complaints one might have with the Catholic Church, they have been doing a fantastic job of highlighting and addressing the plights of the poor. The vast discrepancy of wealth in the developed world is problem enough as it is, but even my modest bottom-rung academic salary puts me in the top 1% of global income. Anyone living above the poverty line in in the U.S. is likely within the top 5%, if not higher, and readers can check where they stand here.

I think one of the greatest moral failures of our time is that even those of us who are struggling financially in the U.S. have so much compared to the rest of the world, where vast numbers of people regularly die from preventable and treatable causes. I think Francis is definitely a figure we can look to for inspiration to address these problems. Not only does he dress and live much more modestly than he can, but he recently started raffling off his excess, which include a new car, bicycles, and new electronics. Barbie Latza Nadeau at The Daily Beast reports:

The money raised in the holy raffle will go to the Pope’s main charity for the poor.  The project is being overseen by Father Corrado Krajewski, a Polish priest who has been Francis’s papal almoner since his election.  Don Corrado, as he is known on the streets of Rome where he frequently distributes gifts of money, food, and clothing to the poor for Francis.  Last week, Krajewski initaited a project to install showers for the homeless in the restrooms in St. Peter’s Square after meeting a man in Rome he had hoped to buy dinner for, who said he really wanted a hot shower instead.  Rome charities estimate that there are around 8,000 homeless people in Rome.

Father Corrado also travels to poor areas around Rome to visit people in need to distribute money to pay utility bills, and past-due rents along with distributing rosaries and sacred pictures of saints, according to Messaggero, which says when Francis assigned him he told Krajewski.

“You will not be a desk bishop desk. You’ll have to be an extension of my me to bring a caress to the dispossessed and the last of the city,” Francis reportedly told his good will angel.  “I can not get out of the Vatican but you will.”

The papal raffle is expected to raise hundreds of thousands of euro and should easily clean the papal closets of hundreds of unneeded and unwanted gifts.

I think it’s always helpful to look around at what we have and figure out what we don’t need, since we have too much and need relatively little. W’re not all gifted new cars and bikes and iPhones, but we regularly buy and receive things we can live without. Even if we can’t sell what we have, it’s nice to take stock of our excess. I think this isn’t just personally and spiritually healthy, but it frees up money we can spend on others.

It’s worth mentioning that I would love to see the Church explore empirically tested ways to help the poor, since developmental aid is complicated and can often be counterproductive (a desk bishop assigned to conducting randomized controlled trials to try different methods of aid and track the results would be an extremely radical and progressive move for the Church). A recent essay by Michael Hobbes at The New Republic explores the difficulty of consistently effective aid in depth, and a follow up offers some practical advice for improving the state of developmental aid. Hobbes writes:

There are villages where deworming will be the most meaningful education project possible. There are others where free textbooks will. In other places, it will be new school buildings, more teachers, lower fees, better transport, tutors, uniforms. There’s probably a village out there where a [celebrated but failed project] would beat all these approaches combined. The point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these modelsnot just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.

I can see why it’s appealing to think that, once you find a successful formula for development, you can just scale it up like a Model T. Host governments want programs that get more effective as they get bigger. Individual donors, you and me, we want to feel like we’re backing a plucky little start-up that is going to save the world.

Some of the poor might need food, others might need showers, others might need help with their utility bills or even infrastructure so they can get clean water. While the personal contact and spiritual care the Church might provide is hard to break down in terms of dollars-and-cents efficiency, cash isn’t. I love that the Church is raising money for the poor, but I am somewhat concerned that there doesn’t seem to be much oversight or evaluation in how the money is spent.

For the laity like us, we can turn to organizations like GiveWell, which rigorously test and evaluate charities to see where donations can be most effective. Their current top choice, one that’s been a favorite of mine, is GiveDirectly—a charity that provides unconditional cash transfers to the poor. The project is simple: give money to people whose problem is not enough money. They’ve been getting a fair amount of attention lately, with features on This American Life and Slate.

While there are some concerns over the longterm effectiveness, it’s still hard to argue that five dollars sent to a rural Kenyan won’t do more good than the five dollars I might and probably will spend on a drink later tonight. They certainly need it more. If unconditional cash transfers aren’t interesting, there are hosts of other proven charities, like deworming initiatives, that we can invest in, confident that it will do some good in the world.

No matter how we go about doing it, there’s a lot of need and a lot we can do (if we’re smart about it). At the very least, I’m glad that someone as high profile as the Pope is giving us another model for the austere and generous lives we could be living.

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