BRYAN FARB ’14
It is not our duty to help the poor. It is our duty to create a society where being poor is impossible. Millions of Americans spend large amounts of time and money trying to help those in need. There is a good chance that you and your family are a part of that group.
Maybe you volunteer for Do It Day, mentor inner-city students, or buy Thanksgiving turkeys for families who cannot afford them. Of course, these acts create positive outcomes, but they also present the following problems:
1. Charity treats the symptoms of structural injustices, but does not address its causes. Donating to a food bank will feed hungry people, but it does nothing to keep those people from going hungry again.
In a world with such abundant resources, every human being has the right to never worry about having enough to eat. We need to aim at incorporating that right into law, and charity takes the wrong approach.
2. Charity perpetuates the injustices it seeks to address. One, it distracts the giver from feeling an appropriate sense of moral outrage toward the fact that over one billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day. As David Hilfiker, in his article, “Justice and the Limits of Charity,” puts it, “you come down and volunteer for a while, or you write a check, and it feels good. Perhaps you develop a close relationship with a formerly homeless man with AIDS, and you realize your common humanity. You feel a real satisfaction in that. You bring your children. But in the process you risk forgetting what a scandal it is that [the shelter] or your local soup kitchen is needed in the first place, forgetting that it is no coincidence your new friend is black, poor, illiterate, and unskilled.”
We should wake up every morning and go to sleep each night upset with the fact that while we are benefitting from an outstanding educational opportunity at Trinity, as well as all the other elements of our lives that gave us that opportunity, thousands of people live in poverty just outside this school’s gates. This may motivate you to volunteer at a local charity or school, but in volunteering that time, the outrage that inspired you to volunteer in the first place fades, and gives you the feeling that you are doing all you can do. Charity can lead to the sentiment amongst citizens and government officials that everything is okay.
3. Over time, charity strips away the dignity of the recipient. Consistent charity asserts two distinct roles, giver and receiver. Rather than fight inequality, this relationship reinforces it, exempting the recipient from the normal social requirement to give in return, which has troubling effects on that person’s sense of personal dignity. A vast majority of us in the Trinity community can only try to imagine the shame involved in depending on the good will of others to survive, and the long-term psychological effects that would have on us.
In his lecture, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,” Slavoj Zizek highlights the core of the problem with charity, comparing the charitable to slave owners who treated their slaves well. These slave owners, Zizek contends, were the most harmful, because they “prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it.”
This critique lends itself to policy advocacy as the proper alternative to charity. Instead of trying to help those in need, we need to advocate for a society that eliminates that need. We should spend our time raising awareness about structural injustice, and lobbying for policies that restructure society to guarantee basic rights. This may seem daunting, but it is the right thing to do.
There is, however, a less obvious and more feasible alternative-engaging in a type of philanthropy that escapes the above criticisms. Ken Tsunoda, executive director of the Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow, a major philanthropic enterprise that focuses on “helping people help themselves,” details how philanthropies can take a strategic approach to creating sustainable improvements for communities in need. Through various forms of empowerment and human development, such as education, job training, and providing capital for individuals to start small businesses, philanthropy can go beyond merely treating the symptoms of injustice, or prolonging the problem, by actively granting individuals access to the opportunities that the systemic inequalities of society denies them. While this method does not properly aim at social overhaul, it can empower individuals and communities to escape the detrimental effects of unjust social structures.
Government is the only entity capable of reconfiguring society so that poverty can no longer exist. This understanding encourages individuals to lobby government to reform the systemic factors leading to poverty and other injustices.
However, the Sager Foundation shows that government advocacy is not the only way to fight injustice. Rather, these types of philanthropy, and others, such as research, are legitimate ways of pursuing justice. As citizens in an unjust world, it is our responsibility to make that world just. There may be multiple ways of pursuing that goal, but handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving is not one of them.