'Sweet Charity' - beware the volunteer's role

August 16, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"Sweet Charity," by Janet E. Poppendieck. Viking. 320 pages. $24.95.

Years ago, as a reporter covering social services, I noticed a strange trend in emergency feeding programs. Virtually ignored

for 364 days out of the year, they became so popular on Thanksgiving Day that local soup kitchens had to turn away would-be volunteers. It seemed a lot of people wanted the warm fuzzy feeling of ladling gravy over some homeless man's potatoes. And, yes, it had to be a food-serving gig. Among these one-day wonders, there wasn't a lot of clamoring to do the dishes.

Sociologist Janet E. Poppendieck looks at this so-called "halo effect" in her thoughtful and provocative "Sweet Charity." She concentrates not on the clients of this country's emergency food programs, but on the workers and volunteers. What she finds are soup kitchens and food pantries that have become gradually institutionalized, as if there were no hope of solving the hunger problem in this country. Yet hunger, Poppendieck notes, is one of the easier problems in a country where there is no actual shortage of food. If we can't solve this, how are we ever going to tackle bigger issues like unemploy- ment and homelessness?

Poppendieck's book would be valuable if only for its discussion of the welfare cuts of the Reagan administration and the welfare reform of the Clinton administration. She concisely and lucidly outlines what happened to entitlement programs, and the resulting demands on already overextended charities.

Her reporting on how these programs work is detailed and exhaustive. If I found it less than enthralling at times, it's only because it is familiar territory for an old social services reporter like myself. I know how soup kitchens work; most people don't. Poppendieck is at her best in the book's conclusion, when she attempts to fashion a better way for helping the nation's poor, a true movement in which charitable programs become cooperative endeavors.

But perhaps I'm too cynical - and Poppendieck points out that liberals tend to be rather cynical and dispirited these days - for I simply could not imagine this Utopian vision, as described in "Sweet Charity."

But Poppendieck is right that there has to be a better way than the current system, in which volunteering often is done for the sake of the volunteer. It also would help if the media would pay closer attention. The fact is, we're not much better than those one-day wonders among the volunteers, seeking out our own warm fuzzies on a few key holidays, then ignoring the issue for the rest of the year.

Laura Lippman, now a feature reporter for The Sun, has written extensively about the city's feeding programs. In fact, knowledge of welfare programs makes it easier to solve the mystery in her latest novel, "Butchers Hill."

! Pub date: 8/16/98

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