There is a habit in discussions of the effects of charity of confusing responses with causes. I noted that in part of our discussion of Toxic Charity:
I want to propose another possibility: it was not charity that prevented this father from providing presents for his family nor that caused his wife to have to shield their children from his embarrassment. Rather, it was a constellation of social systems that prevented him family from earning the sort of income required to provide those gifts. Perhaps it was the same constellation of social systems that have resulted in the stagnation of middle-class wages (let alone lower-class wages) and nearly unprecedented income and wealth inequality we see today. Perhaps – we are not told the race or ethnicity of the family Lupton was visiting – it was institutionalized racism that results in a significant earning gap between white men and African-American men. Perhaps it was something else. The point remains the same: regardless of whether that well-dressed family had shown up, the family Lupton was visiting would not have been able to afford presents. It is even possible that the father would still have been embarrassed.
What the charity of that well-dressed family did do was point to the problem of poverty. It was not itself the problem, it was a symptom. A symptom in this sense: a sort of perversion of a sacrament; where both are an outward signs of an inward condition, a sacrament is a sign of grace while a symptom is a sign of a curse. In this case, the curse, so to speak, is poverty and charity becomes the sign pointing to that poverty. The poverty is real whether the charity exists or not. It simply plays a different social role once the symptom comes into play.
I don’t know why people make the claim that charity causes things like dependence or entitlement, though I rather suspect that it is part and parcel of that oldest of moral exercises: seeking a moral justification for selfishness. After all, if we can convince ourselves that ‘helping’ will in fact weaken the very people we are trying to assist, we can provide ourselves with the justification we need to bravely do nothing in the face of human suffering.
Which brings me to an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the lede from Think Progress’s response to it:
According to a hedge fund manager writing in the Wall Street Journal, homelessness isn’t caused by deep-seated inequities in society, but rather by people like his teenage son who volunteer at homeless shelters.
And the quotes from the letter itself:
My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them?
Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.
In order to believe this – that, as Think Progress puts it would be better to “take the effort you spent volunteering and use it to line your own pockets instead” – one needs only two things: (1) a complete ignorance of how the world actually works (e.g. the vast inequalities in income and wealth already mentioned) and (2) a near-complete inability to feel empathy for those who suffer at the hands a world of iniquity. Ignorance, in other words, and psychopathy.