Nearly every day I receive pleas to aid the less fortunate. Like many Americans, I give to a number of organizations from the local food bank to Doctors Without Borders.
Citizens of the United States are the most charitable people in the world! Collectively, Americans give over $292 billion, 1.44% of GDP (2019,) each year to charitable organizations! This figures do not include the millions of hours of volunteer service.
Canada is the second most charitable country, giving 0.77% of GDP, with the United Kingdom third at 0.54% of GDP. Many countries do not have a history of charitable giving. Instead, their citizens depend on religious institutions and the state to care for those in need.
I absolutely do not disparage these efforts. Nor do I advocate people cease giving to charities. Most such organizations are well intended and provide needed services. My question is: “Does all of this giving actually help those in need in the long term?”
Let me explain my point of view and why I am raising what might seem heretical questions. I have been very fortunate in my life. Born into a white middle class family and having created a middle class family, I never experienced want in my childhood or in my adult life. I have been and continue to be privileged in many ways.
As a person who has reaped the benefits of privilege and opportunity, I believe, like many others, it is my responsibility to help make the world a better place for those who have not been as fortunate. American private philanthropy rests on this belief.
Nonetheless, more families than ever are in poverty. Increasing numbers of children live in families who are food insecure. Rates of homelessness are increasing. Rates of unemployment among black, Hispanic, and rural white populations remain significantly higher than suburban whites. The most effective schools remain in largely white communities. Violence, especially gun related violence, terrorizes poor communities of color.
We have become accustomed to these inequities. While many are frustrated, others view this situation as “Just the way the world is.” Even Christ said, “The poor will always be with you.”
Why is it that we as among the most advanced countries in the world cannot solve these problems? While I do honor the intentions of those who seek to do good in the world, I suspect this frustration, and, indeed, some guilt for their privilege drives a considerable amount of charitable giving. As a fellow board member of a large charity laughingly stated, “I sure am glad I am not white – too much guilt.”
A number of years ago, I was the chair of a program at my church providing food baskets and gifts to needy families at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Members of the church volunteered to deliver these gifts to the homes of families in the community. One such volunteer asked me to assign her to “a family who would be grateful” as they were taking their children and wanted them to see their gifts were appreciated. While this instance was quite blatant (perhaps more honest,) I suspect we do indeed give to make ourselves feel good, to assuage our guilt and make ourselves more comfortable when we return to our pleasant homes and our abundance.
I have a black acquaintance who, as a child from a poor family, was on the receiving end of white charity. It left a lasting impression on him. Not of the generosity of the givers, but of the demeaning nature of those experiences.
For some years, I volunteered at a faith based organization seeking to prevent homelessness by helping people pay rent, utilities, and obtain food. The agency’s mission is to stabilize families and prevent the cascading nature of one small unpaid bill resulting in financial disaster and homelessness. It is well-funded and highly respected in the community for its excellent management and financial transparency.
Since the agency is over twenty-five years old, a number of clients seek help on a regular basis. Indeed, we see second and third generations!
The paid staff and the volunteers are white and the cliental is over 90% black. I am increasingly aware of and uncomfortable with being “the nice white lady who gives help,” while the clients play the role of “grateful person in need.” Though respectful, our encounters are definitely not between equals.
What will change this state of affairs? What are the answers that will end the cycle of poverty among many families? Like all complex problems, the solutions are complex.
Since I am a former college educator, my bias is improved education for all children. We know early childhood education is vitally important to success in school. Yet many poor children of color lack access to quality early education. Too many children receive a sub-standard education, falling behind literally in the first few years of school. No one educational solution works, but we must as a society support our education system, even if it means raising taxes to give schools and teachers what they need to effectively educate our children. We must stop giving lip service to supporting education at all levels and provide an education that will enable young people to earn a decent living.
As a community college faculty member, I saw miraculous examples of how education can change lives, but I also know how difficult it is to overcome years of substandard education. I will never forget an eighteen year old black high school graduate who said he wanted to be an electrical engineer. Not only was he unaware of the educational requirements for engineering, but because of low entrance test scores he was in remedial reading and math classes. To say his chances of success were minimal is an understatement! They were nearly non-existent! Unfortunately, there is throughout our education system a largely unspoken expectation of low academic performance by children of color, as well as those who come from poor communities, including rural communities.
Education is the historic way out of poverty. However, children must arrive at school ready to learn. That means proper nutrition and freedom from the chaos and violence in many homes and neighborhoods. Children cannot learn if they are afraid and hungry! We must lower the level of violence in our neighborhoods and homes. This means providing access to effective substance abuse treatment and mental health care.
Several years ago, I served on the board of a non-profit organization whose mission was to end generational poverty and provide hope to those who live within a vicious cycle of poverty and financial insecurity. The agency developed programs to support education from early childhood through college or technical school. It also established a low income credit union to foster home and small business ownership, as well as, financial literacy. Eventually, the agency developed a program to support families with at risk children.
The organization also partnered with Habitat for Humanity to support families in building and owning their own homes, a proven way to stabilize families and improve children’s school performance.
Many changes are needed if we are to build a more equitable and prosperous society. Others include criminal justice reform, as well as, improving access to health care, including mental health care and addiction treatment. Wages have been declining in real terms over the past twenty years. We must face the reality that average wages are simply too low to afford a decent standard of living.
Better schools, support for families, criminal justice reform, as well as, improved mental and physical health care are indeed costly. But so is doing nothing. Government programs combined with effective non-profit and corporate initiatives can help. Personal responsibility is absolutely essential. If we want change, we must be willing to support change, even if it changes and costs us.