Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas wish: If only we could rely on private charity

In Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl," an impoverished child freezes to death sleeping on a door step in Christian Copenhaen.
The Little Match Girl, hungry and freezing.

 In Dicken's A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim would have perished for want of good food and medical attention in Christian London if not for the miraculous transformation of Scrooge (in a story that never advocates changing systemic social injustice). In 19th century and early 20th century Christian countries, children went hungry and dressed in rags, and many people died young of preventable diseases--despite all the growth in wealth brought by industrialism and despite the many efforts of well-meaning Christians and others. The needs were simply overwhelming. Even today, in Third World countries without a social safety net, poor people live harsh lives that Christian charity has been unable to come close to ameliorating--in Kenya, a country the British colonists once divided amongst religious groups, including the Quakers, a friend tells me that a Kenyan without money will be left to bleed to death on an emergency room floor, dying while nurses step over him.
Tiny Tim would have died but for Scrooge's personal transformation.

In Middleton in Transition, anthropologists writing in the 1930s outline the almost impossible struggles of private charity to plug the hole the Depression blew in the local economy. A social consensus arose in which landlords did not evict unemployed tenants--and were tacitly relieved of contributing to the many charitable drives designed to stave off starvation. But not until the New Deal sent government money and centralized programming to the town--in reality, Muncie, Indiana--could the aid begin to meet the needs of the local population.

Yet friends or acquaintances of mine often mention their desire that private charity replace government social programs. The government, they say, is not supposed to be in the aid business. Government charity usurps the role of the churches and other religious institutions. If the government did not steal people's money and spend it against their wishes, they would have more to give to deserving causes. If the government would get out of the way and stop dispensing food stamps and Medicaid, the churches could step in and take over, distributing aid with love and individualized care, not bureaucratic coldness.

This is a compelling counter-narrative to the welfare state, and oh, how I wish it were true. If only churches and other religious groups could handle a society's charity: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. Yet history, as outlined above--and present day experience--tell me this is a fantasy.

We are a much richer country now than in the 1930s, some will argue, and have learned the lessons of the debilitating dependence wrought by the welfare state. We would step up to the plate. But would we? If we would, why haven't we? If we could, why is anyone applying for government aid? I would be more comfortable with withdrawing the aid if it happened in such a way that need for it withered on the vine. Rather than doing  away with SNAP (food stamps) I'd rather see a situation in which private charity was so generous that nobody would think to turn to the government. However, I don't think that world--that shalom kingdom-- is on the verge of emerging.

I fear that for all the talk, if the government were to withdraw what is left of the social safety net, that first, many people would not "snap to it" and hustle into work, because work would not be available to them for any number of reasons. I fear many would become ever more  hungry, ragged and homeless, and that we more comfortable souls would become inured to a situation in which great groups of the poor lived miserable lives. I fear that rather than give sacrificially to meet need,s churches would withdraw, as churches do, and insist their mission was to save souls, not bodies. Even the Quakers, feeling the financial pinch in America during the Depression, balked at giving German Quakers the aid they needed to help people, including Jews, during the crisis of National Socialism. American Quakers, as outlined in the book Quakers and Nazis, remembered the "rice Quakers" in Germany after WWI--those who converted just long enough to get fed--and fell back on the idea of providing spiritual nurture, asking the German Quakers to become materially self-sufficient and help themselves.

How would this not happen across the board if the government safety net were removed? If churches and mosques and other groups could deal with the needs without the government, wouldn't they have done so already? Wouldn't there have been no need for a welfare state? My concern is that when people are asked to dispense aid on a personal level--and when it is voluntary--judgmental attitudes quickly kick in. People in need suddenly "don't deserve" help. Jane Austen nails this mentality--all too human--in Sense and Sensibility--when, urged on by his wife, the half brother of the Dashwood sisters quickly reinterprets his father's dying wish that the son help his wife and daughters in order to be able to do as little as possible.
John Dashwood's wife talks him out of setting up an independent income for his step-mother and half-sisters for after all, they  themselves might someday need the money.

I also worry that the growing trend towards private charity leads to distinctions in which those who are personable and attractive and popular get help, while those who aren't get left at the wayside. As a religion reporter, I covered a number of silent auctions sponsored by churches to help a family with large cancer treatment bills. Inevitably, it was an attractive family being helped, a family that people identified with --usually young, with young children, and active and popular in the church. I often wondered if the same effort would be made for the nasty older woman that people avoided or the elderly man who pissed himself or the pain-in-the-ass woman who was always complaining about her dietary needs--or the family that didn't do much for the church, with the kids that were a little heavy and clumsy. I imagine people would want--or think they wanted--to help--but would they always be too busy to organize, too overbooked to attend the auction? I remember a vulnerable young woman dating a young man I used to work with. She was heavily involved in saving abused horses. She told some people I worked with about a fund raiser--they eagerly promised to attend. Not one showed up, remembering at the last minute other commitments, or that they were too tired. I don't know if she was hurt, as she never came to our office again--but I imagine she was, and I imagine the well meaning people simply didn't like or identify with her enough (she had acne! she was a little needy!) to make the effort. These are realities.

But, people will tell me, more people would convert to Christianity if they had to turn to the Church for their physical needs. I don't believe this. I call this sick Christianity. I believe that having to mouth Christian pieties to get a meal alienates people from Christianity almost more quickly than anything else, a sentiment documented by writers such as George Orwell who lived among the way the "down and out" in London in the 1930s.

So, while Christmas conjures up an image of generosity, love, goodwill and private charity, I for one will continue with all my heart and mind and body to support the welfare state--for it is, I believe, a gift from God that allows us to make life better for all people, a way to bring goodwill to all men and all women.

What do you think? What would it take for faith groups to provide for people's needs? Is it possible?


Matt Hisrich said...

Hello Diane,

Thank you for this thoughtful post!

You might be interested in David Beito's account of the history of mutual aid societies. He chronicles the way New Deal policies decimated much of the private charity infrastructure that already existed.


For Quakers interested in upholding the peace testimony, it should be worth considering how comfortable they are using force to achieve any ends - charity or otherwise.

Thanks again,

Jess said...


I have often pondered this same question. I sometimes think that the ability to control whether one's dollars are given to "deserving" or "undeserving" persons is the actual objection of those who hate paying taxes that help the poor, though they rarely so articulate it. Likewise, those of us (and I include myself) who prefer to have a state-funded "bottom" that protects the very poorest from starvation, dying of treatable illness, etc., may not think of it this way, but, in preferring government-run programs to private ones, prefer needs-based to "deservingness-based" charity.

Anyway. Interesting post!


Patricia Dallmann said...

Although I can't add to the topic discussed here at present, I feel that I must say something about the quality of the writing. It's thoughtful, coherent, and significant--so uplifting to read thoughts on a topic of substance that are expressed well.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you for saying this so clearly and powerfully.

I live in the second poorest county in NY, in a place where a lot of people are struggling to get by or not making it at all. I agree strongly with what you've said about the need for a social safety net; I see this need all around me. I also see that often this safety-net help is provided clumsily, in a way that can be humiliating and that can discourage people who might not be able to get full-time employment from doing the work they might yet be able to do. But I think the solution is improving the assistance system, not ditching it.

I think the problem goes well beyond the assistance system. I think the main problem is this crazy economy where there is a huge disconnect between paying work and useful work, and in which people are not encouraged to be directly (rather than economically) self-sufficient and sometimes don't have access to land/tools/skills enabling such self-sufficiency. But that could take up a whole blog psot of its own...

I think that systemic safety nets don't in any way eliminate the need for direct help from people and communities of faith. People and small communities can probably pass on skills, share tools and build relationships more effectively than large programs. And there are always the people who fall through the cracks in the system. (I remember helping to patch a hole in the roof of an older couple who were ineligible for county weatherization assistance because they didn't spend enough on fuel to show they needed help because they didn't have enough money to spend on fuel...) I think, also, that some things (like comprehensive health care) are easier to provide at the big-system level. I don't think we should support one end--public support or personal outreach--and feel that that excuses us from attending to the other.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Matt Hisrich, I hear the query about force, and I am mulling it over. It would help me to understand--do you have this concern only about taxes that pay for safety-net programs, or do you believe that all taxation and all government is wrong? I have some sympathy and respect for the latter position, though in this age of multinational corporations I see a need for some more publicly accountable large entities to hold the MNCs in check--not that they always do it very well.

Matt Hisrich said...

Hello Joanna,
Thanks for asking! I guess it boils down to being honest with ourselves about what it is we are doing when we invoke the power of the state. This is not "friendly persuasion" - it is action accomplished with the implicit or explicit threat of violence compelling behavior. Woolman calls us to examine the roots of war in all of our actions, and I don't think this is one we can casually ignore. Many rational and ethical arguments can be made for just war as opposed to pacifism, for instance, but Friends have traditionally held to pacifism in spite of those arguments (and been labeled naive or dangerous for that stance). I think if we want to employ violence to achieve what we believe to be a better world we can compromise the peace testimony and do so with strong ethical rationale, but we need to acknowledge that it is a compromise.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks for replying.
I do see that nations are too willing to resort to force. I object to this. I am a pacifist; I believe that lethal violence is wrong. I think compulsion is a more complex question. On the individual level, I think it's OK to grab a kid to stop him from running into the road or from hitting another kid. On the state level, I think it's OK to tell a corporation that they may not release certain pollutants into the air or water. In both cases there is an element of compulsion which could arguably be defined as violent, but there isn't a death threat implied. Obviously people can be compelled or restrained in a way that is wrong. Obviously it's better to work by education and moral suasion so that the kid will not try to hit people in future, or the corporation to pollute (tho I have some doubts about the educability of corporations, whether or not they are legally 'persons'). But when education hasn't worked yet I think some types of compulsion are acceptable. Taxation strikes me as another case of compulsion which does not rest on a death threat.

I do see that national governments do at some points use deadly force and that this does great harm. I see that people might legitimately decide either to eschew all dealings with government to avoid complicity, or to attempt to encourage the better and discourage the worse tendencies in government. I think participation in the market also necessarily implies a certain complicity in wrongdoing. Those who do not participate in the market above a certain level are not taxed, so I don't see taxation as a forcible violation of integrity or a compromise of the Peace Testimony.

Diane said...

I believe in both/and, not either/or--both private charity and gov't safety nets. Certainly the two could and should be mutually reinforcing. I didn't know that the New Deal undermined private charity but will look into that. I have trouble seeing taxation as coercive--yes, we have to pay taxes but in an ostensible democracy we are the government, enacting our own will (whether we really are a democracy is another question.) Mainly, I fear increased suffering if we rely primarily on private charity. I also fear that private charity encourages us (albeit often unconsciously) mostly to help the likable and those like us.

Anonymous said...

Simply put most people don't begin to have the money themselves, and the rich don't have the organizations or knowledge of where need is and how to distribute it. Only through an impersonal agency where people are paid to do the work, can the condition of the poor begin to be ameliorated.
I rememeber a dialogue in Emma where one of the Knightley brothers tells Jane the reason the post office service is so good is people are paid to do it.

And then only through gov't policies which take the taxes brought in (on a more progressive basis so we can have in the US much much more coming in) and pass laws and bring back agencies and social programs can we begin to see poverty prevented so there will be far far fewer people in need. The poor don't want to be in need; they are not given the opportunity for education they can afford, in the US increasingly for decent jobs. That has been engineered deliberately in the last 40 years.

Gov'ts do reach into our lives deeply and they can function for evil and for good. It depends who is running them, who the people with power are answerable to.


Diane said...

Thanks Ellen. And thanks for the kind comment Patricia.

Matt Hisrich said...

Hello Joanna,
Thank you for engaging the question. I think you're on to something in saying that there is a difference between lethal force and compulsion. This should be particularly relevant to Friends, who have experienced this distinction throughout their history - from imprisonment over hat honor to the same for conscientious objection and war tax resistance. If we accept violence as a necessary part of the social order, perhaps the query for Friends to wrestle with is what level of violence we find comfort with to accomplish our ends. You might find the video "George Ought to Help" interesting: http://youtu.be/PGMQZEIXBMs

Matt Hisrich said...

Hello Diane,
I think you may have hit the nail on the head! What exactly does representative democracy mean? You might appreciate Gerard Casey's commentary on the subject. As he puts it, "two things are definitely true of representative democracy: it isn't democracy and it isn't representative." http://mises.org/daily/3383