Charity is for setbacks, not systematic shortfalls
by Karen Christine Patrick
We have refugees in my house this week, one is a dog we are dog-sitting for our friend who had a sudden death in the family. The other is an elderly neighbor who had three trees come down in his yard from a sudden storm as we get from time-to-time here in Texas. Friends and neighbors are likely to assist in the case of our elderly friend beyond putting him up for a few days. On a fixed income, he’s going to have a hard time with the bill for the electrician to repair his power box that was torn from the house. We are working on this issue, but this situation but this had me thinking about “charity” in terms of short term or how it’s seen as a crutch for the economy, the safety net when all others fail.
Where I live, we hear about “faith based charities” like it’s a panacea for the increasing austerity and appealing to the noble notion that giving is good (which it is) and communities ought to support the needy. Key word here is “ought”… in other words, it’s voluntary and so people may or may not respond, fair enough. Also, people cannot be guilted into giving what they don’t have. That’s not fair, although some of the most generous people I know give sacrificially, and that is admirable. But as we go now in the “recession” LONGER than the Great Depression, and people are burning every resource they have now just for the basics, depending on charity is not realistic for an economy that doesn’t allow for the accumulation of resources to be shared in the first place, generally.
Charities can help people, but they need to be helped first before they can do that. With the economy down, most of the charities are very limited like never before. I think that giving to others is a wonderful thing, but it is important to acknowledge that charity can’t make up for when an economic system is being mismanaged on the grand scale. Experiencing a move, I came from a community with much stronger charitable capacity than the one I am in now. I have seen that charitable capacity differs, community by community, according to the overall health of the local economy.
Charity is great, but it’s for setbacks. It does it’s best work providing for life’s unfortunate events, for the ability for the community to respond individually and collectively to what wasn’t able to be provided any other way. However, more and more it’s apparent that our system is broken at the top. Financial scandals and bank bailouts by the government means something is really, really wrong with the monetary system itself that needs corrected or the bailouts and “easing” won’t do a darn thing. The people will lose trust enough, hopefully before “a crash” as our grandfathers and grandmothers told us about.
Charity was not made to balance an imbalance in the social contract where we expect the wealthy to contribute, not continually hunt for loopholes and tax shelters. That doesn’t mean they don’t contribute at all, for there are many foundations and charitable organizations that court the wealthy to contribute. There is that tax benefit thing also further goading the wealthy to cough up the cash. Great. Awesome. More. However, by the numbers, we see a gross inequity where charity is just a cover up of a fundamentally unfair system of patronage, not unlike the feudal age. That is not just rhetoric on my part, we have a world where eighty individuals now have over half the wealth of the planet. That is mind boggling. And the laws, governments, economic advantages have the effect of an invisible funnel pumping money up the chain. The idea of a “trickle down” is a joke. The experiment is over and the results are in. What do we hear from our politicians? Austerity. Not just in Europe but American Austerity. Our leaders are whipping the donkey that knows it’s about to go over a fiscal cliff.
Yet Americans are very generous, to a fault. And the fault often is they get their heartstrings pulled to donate to charities who say they are taking care of people in need. However, people need to get some awareness about the world of the non-profits. Not all are managed well. I have done quite a bit of volunteer work and unfortunately have seen the dark side of charity. One important thing people should do is investigate the charities they give to. An important consideration is to see how much “pennies on the dollar” or by percentage, how much fundage goes to the client population, the people on the posters. One way to check is with the office of your state’s Attorney General department. They have information of how much is being donated and how much goes to the needy.
Fortunately, this is not the norm, but one horror story I can share illustrates where some can take advantage. I volunteered for an organization where the director was an alcoholic and regularly asked for donations of wine for fundraising events but always requested an overage and then CHARGED for glasses of wine at the event, thereby assuring that there was extra left over, that she took home for herself and gave to friends. Yikes! But it happens. The usual situation is that most charities are underfunded and overwhelmed. Mistakes and misunderstandings, stress and strain is common, burnout common and organizational strain complying to the ever-increasing demands of a state that would rather lean on charities instead of managing the economy properly and fairly.
The truth is, nobody really wants to be on the receiving end of charity if they can help it. It’s humiliating for most people. I’ve used those services myself, especially when I had kids, just to survive. Also, I have walked others through the process of getting help, from getting food stamps , applying for disability benefits, taking them to the food or clothing bank for the first time. It’s not a fun situation, in the case of the food banks, I have had to help people with special dietary needs and so they are limited in what is there to take home because instead of being able to choose what they need from a store, they have to pick through what was donated and hope for the best. Ditto those going to a clothing bank. Hope it fits! Doesn’t smell funny. I have to give kudos to the wonderful organizations that get this “right” and work really hard at it.
But here is the situation, minimum wage and part-time workers are the working poor. They are working, but they are not making enough to make it. They require support EVERY month and now many have done this for years, decades, generations. Month after month, if you go into a store in a moderate to poor neighborhood and right around the first of the month, you will see what are the cheap eats because those with food stamps will have emptied those sections and there will be rectangular holes on the store shelves where the bargains were cleaned out. This is not about how people are trying to survive, but how we have an economic system that has been systemically weak for a very long time.
There are whole levels of our economy, organizations, and corporations that benefit by there being a poverty class. For example, banks by being the issuers of food cards are getting a kickback on each transaction. Almost all states could make the choice to create their own banks for dealing with state benefit programs like North Dakota has and thereby save money for the state government, but do not. Organizations and individuals that BENEFIT from there being a poor class are not likely to want to change the situation. If we have an industry that benefits from poverty, how are we going to get rid of poverty? I would love it if every person who works for an organization or BANK or business that works for charities would work themselves out of their job because suddenly everybody is doing so well, unless it’s the kind of charity for emergencies and setbacks only.
One proposal for abolishing poverty is the Basic Income Guarantee, giving a cash grant to every citizen just like we do with Social Security benefits. Those who benefit from poverty would find themselves out of work. But hey, they still would have a Basic Income Guarantee to live on when they no longer are needed for that kind of work. If you are employed because of poverty, you would want to work yourself out of a job, right? Am I right?
If people still want to help, I think it’s wonderful that the B.I.G. is going to unleash a wave of volunteerism like never before. I believe in the philosophy that humans will “get up and do stuff” and freed from drudgery jobs by automation and robotics, supported financially to get the gas to get in the car to go to where one volunteers will mean more people will have the time and ability to volunteer. We will re-define charity in terms of hands-on help instead of dollars and cents.
For more from Karen Christine Patrick, visit her blog.