America Can Escape The Charity Trap

Nothing is more clarifying than the pain and panic of a deadly pandemic.  This one challenges us to see if we can spread love amongst one another as easily as we spread this infectious and unforgiving coronavirus.  As the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic dials up, donations to food pantries across America dial down.  This is not happening because Americans are evil and no longer care about the less fortunate.  It is because Americans are human and one of our greatest fears is becoming one of the less fortunate ourselves.  As Russell Simmons famously quipped, you can’t help the poor if you’re one of them. 

People do not just stop giving to charity because they actually have less to give.  People stop giving to charity because they are afraid that they might soon have less to give.  The fear of lack trumps the reflexes of largess every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  The reality is that charity in America has always been a complicated social and economic formula.  The viability of charities depends on there being enough people with enough disposable resources with enough civic mindedness to take action that ostensibly benefits other people.  If there is a deficit in any of those factors, charities will fall far short of the need presented in any moment of crisis. 


Those who are still really driven to give and who still have the capacity may hang in there for a while.  But they will eventually become dispirited by the lack of broad-based buy-in and succumb to inaction themselves.  Why should they be the only ones voluntarily sacrificing their wealth?  Won’t that let others get an upper-hand on them?  This is how humanity always works to  undermine charity.

The real question- and true challenge- is how have we come to accept reliance on charity to undergird our society in the first place?  Who decided that it was okay that there ALWAYS be people in need?  And by “in need” I don’t mean in need of the newest Apple i-phone, the newest Sony Playstation or the newest Air Jordans.  I mean “in need” of sufficient shelter, necessary nourishment and remedial medical care.  Despite the legitimate warmth and genuine tears often expressed through our charitable giving, we have accepted that many Americans are going to live in a perpetual state of poverty.  Moreover, we are accepting the permenance of all the societal ills that come along with entrenched poverty.  And because of this pandemic we need to brace ourselves for the exposure of just how ugly poverty really is, how savagely it operates and how inadequate our charities have always been at addressing it.

So with condolences to the good people who make their living running charitiable organizations, it is time for Americans to abandon charities that ostensibly address the scourge of poverty en masse.  Not because it is time to give up on helping people who are struggling to survive, but because it is time for us to attack the “struggling to survive” state of affairs in our country.  From a public policy standpoint, replacing the tepid energy of voluntary sharing with the radioactive power of radical mutuality is the surest way out of this vicious cycle.  Radical mutuality is simply the political ideal that we advance and enact policies on the basis that the collective well-being of the citizenry is inseparable from the well-being of the individual citizen. 

So we no longer judge the performance of our society on how charitabe the wealthier amongst us can be, but on how unnecessary charity has become.  We will know that radical mutuality has taken hold when even our citizens with absolutely zero wealth and absolutely zero influence are no longer facing food insecurity, residential displacement or illness induced economic collapse.  As things stand right now, all three of those societal ills are just the accepted status quo.

Where radical mutuality replaces charity, when one child is going hungry, the weakness and pain that come with it belongs to all of us.  It is our collective responsibility to keep that one child from living in hunger.  Where radical mutuality replaces charity, when one young man is unjustly imprisoned, the dispair and fear that come with it belongs to all of us.  It is our collective responsibility to return that young man to freedom.  Where radical mutuality replaces charity, when one family loses their home because of a medical crisis, the desperation and disillusion that come with it belongs to all of us.  It is our collective responsibility to restore that family to the stability of their home.  We may not be able to save the life of their loved one but we can lessen the pain of their loss by making sure they can keep their home. 


You will never convince me that these high-minded goals are unreachable.  This country put a man on the moon fifty years ago and we are supposed to believe that we can’t construct an economic and political system that upholds humanity?  This is not a matter of skill, my friends, this is a matter of will.  America’s government has enough money to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rebuilding other nations around the world so it has the money to eradicate poverty.  It is not the job of charitable citizens.  It is the government’s job.  In fact, it is the government’s most important job and our policies at the local, state and national level must reflect that priority.  Our government must commit to a war on poverty the way that it was committed to the war on drugs.  Nothing less is acceptable.

Is this kind of paradigm shift a huge undertaking?  You’re damned right it is.  But I would rather we fail trying to do something big and meaningful than succeed at playing small ball and conceding that we will leave this society no better off than we found it.  Sadly, that is where we have always been when it comes to charity.  We have ignored this inconvenient truth for so long that it is fair to ask if charity functions as much to tend to the emotional needs of the donor as the economic needs of the recipient.  Does going into your pocket to give to someone in need feel good? Of course it does.  Some of us enjoy feeling superior to others who don’t donate to our brothers and sisters in need.  Some of us enjoy feeling superior to the unfortunate people we are donating to.  But some of us give and then struggle to sleep at night because we know in our hearts that our giving has not solved anything beyond the moment.  We know that the odds are far greater that the person we just extended ourselves to will be in the same predicament tomorrow that led him to the side of the road where we found him today. 

It is that last group of people that the message of this piece is directed to.  And while that group may not make up a majority of politically active Americans today that may be a temporary condition.  The ravages of COVID-19 are going to open eyes that have been closed for decades to the fact that the way we are doing things now simply is not working and will not sustain the aspirations of our nation for much longer.  The foundation is cracking and buckling right now.  Fortunately the way forward has both a clear path and a political party sub-set firmly in place.  After years of resistence to party affiliation for both practical and philosophical reasons, I am in four-square alignment with Democratic Socialism. 


The Democratic party has a strong vehicle for the crucial races that lie ahead and a good solid driver behind the wheel in Joe Biden.  But the fuel that is going to fire that engine to run with the force of greatest purpose will be provided by the Democratic Socialist movement.  Democratic Socialist are not just about getting rid of Trump but getting rid of Trumpism.  Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have articulated the vision that makes radical mutuality politically viable and I am all in on that.  Change has to start somewhere and every movement has its Moses.  Bernie may not be around when the vision of Democratic Socialism manifests.  I may not be either.  But whatever I can do to move the ball forward I am going to do and I encourage like-minded people to do the same.   

In the meantime, if we are going to keep charities alive, let’s run charities and raise funds to “Save The Clock Tower” or “Save The Manitees” or “Hug The Trees.” 


I’m perfectly cool with all of that and am likely to be supportive of a few of those causes myself.  But trees, manitees and towers are not people.  They are not my brother- and I AM my brother’s keeper.  And because I am, I am now a Democratic Socialist.

π ∞

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