"Charity" isn't working, and it never was designed to end socially or collectively resolvable suffering.
There. I've said it.
Yes, I dare to question the ideas about charity that have infused themselves into our societies and culture. I know, major religions take great and noble stands on the necessity for the "better off" to give charitably to the "less well off." They have gotten things crossed. The ideas and practices about charity prevents us from reorganizing ourselves into better ways to coexist with one another.They are in the way.
I will frame my comments by responding to Josephine Lowell’s definition of charity. I need to say up front that I admire Lowell a great deal and appreciate that her heart was well schooled by her abolitionist parents.
In her 1884 book, Public Relief and Private Charity, Lowell gives 4 facets to her definition of charity (pp 88-90)—
“1st. It must be voluntary.” She notes that the exchange of material resources resulting from the use of force may transfer property from the wealthy to the poor, but it’s not charity.
“2nd. It must be free in another sense. The person to whom we exercise charity cannot have an acknowledged personal claim upon us.” For Lowell, relationships like parent-child, or employer-employee establish channels of service and support that cannot be labeled charity. Often there’s a duty implied, and charity and duty don’t mix; one is supposedly voluntary and free and the other has shades of moral obligations.
“3rd. Charity must go further than kind feeling—it must be kind action—it must accomplish good to the object of it. No amount of good feeling can convert an injurious act into a charitable one.”
“4th. Charity must be exercised towards a person in inferior circumstances to those of his benefactor. We cannot be charitable to our equals—in the sense of the word with which we are dealing.”
Let’s let Lowell sum up her argument:
“Charity then, as I define it, must be a voluntary, free, beneficent action performed towards those who are in more destitute circumstances and inferior in worldly position.
“By this definition, all official and public relief is put outside the pale of charity, since it lacks the voluntary element.”
She is not the only thinker to focus on the voluntary, giving side of this exchange. The 13th century Jewish Rabbi and doctor, Maimonides, posits 8 levels of Giving. (The word tzedakah is the Hebrew term for justice or righteousness. It is often translated as charity.)
- Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
- Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
- Giving tzedakah before being asked.
- Giving adequately after being asked.
- Giving willingly, but inadequately.
- Giving "in sadness" (giving out of pity).
All of Maimonides' levels imply voluntary giving, simply in more variety that Lowell dealt with.
The rest of this post will take a closer look at Lowell’s first point: It must be voluntary.
I picture 2 people, Ms. A who is feeling in a charitable mood, and Mr. B, who is feeling in need of help. Ms. A certainly has an option to provide some or all the help Mr. B needs, and can do so voluntarily. Mr. B’s condition may not be so voluntary; in fact he may be in extreme distress.
By addressing only one side of this exchange, Lowell overlooks that charity involves at least two people, or two parties. It may also involve the tax collector, and this third element introduces the possibility of the person offering the charity, Ms. A, may want to benefit from the tax write-off.
On the other hand, Mr. B may have claims on his income which he seeks to avoid. His hard-up, hard-luck situation may be more a voluntary choice than entirely the result of circumstances.
Somewhere in the middle is the psychology of both those that offer and those that receive. Lee Stringer in Grand Central Winter—his memoir of life on the streets of New York City—captures in a brief sketch this dance of motives and actions.
Stringer had been working the subway cars, selling a weekly newspaper sold by homeless people to earn a few dollars. He had made his pitch but did not get any sales. Before departing, a woman wishes more people would buy a copy to “help the homeless.” He offers her a complimentary copy. She refuses, because he could “sell that.” Stringer writes:
“This gets me slightly ticked.
“’I may be on the street,’ I tell her. ‘But if I couldn’t give something to someone every now and then, wouldn’t that make me poorer than I am?’" …
He pleads with her to take the paper (“all kinds of things riding” on it, he notes.)
She instead digs out 97¢ for the paper, “there you go,” she says triumphant. “But it’s her victory alone.”(Emphasis added.)
She goes into the next car and leaves the paper for him before she exits. He finds it when he enters that car.
It was her "victory alone" because the shadow side to Lowell’s feeling that charity must be voluntary is the sense of shame, humiliation—even stigma—that the recipient may experience. Is this what was Stringer hints at by his side comment that "all kinds of things were riding" on her accepting his offer of a free paper?
In the spirit of never critiquing something without offering a suggestion, I would rewrite Lowell’s first point to read:
People have multiple motives for giving and accepting help.
Somehow I personally have always intuited this feeling of shame from receiving assistance. As a tutor at a youth center in New York, I often encountered middle and high school students who knew they needed help but felt uncomfortable that they needed it! After we had completed any necessary paper work, I would ask them, “What are you going to teach me?”
This caught them off-guard as they felt they were “empty” or "broken" and had to be “filled” or "fixed" with the understanding or knowledge that tutoring offered. To be asked to teach something back right away established our relationship as one that was closer to being one among equals: I knew a little more about composing an essay and was happy to share with them—they knew more about things like Chisanbop (Korean method for doing math calculations using your fingers) which I wanted them to share with me.
Interesting area to be exploring. I remember reading somewhere that there is a great difference between when you are giving from your abundance or giving from a place requiring some level of sacrifice. I found that provocative.