Let’s Face It, Charity is Not Enough

When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia.  We read, exclusively, The New York Times.

I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.

The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.

Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.

With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.

Unknown-2Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

This went on year after year.  Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.

Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December.  The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.

And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.

 

This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.

It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts.  Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.

As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story.  Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.

I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.

It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case.  Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.

But the need goes on, and on.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind?  What will become of her rambunctious little brothers?  What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation?  What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?

 

When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration.  I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.

In fact, it’s the other way around in our America.  More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day.  Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working.  We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people.  Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.

There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.

It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.

We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use.  This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.

Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.

Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.

The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”

Why?  Because it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.

Structural changes are needed at every level of our society.  For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.

American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.

Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing.  Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.

At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.

Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.

Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity.  All Dasani needs is a fair chance.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine”

I believe that we are coming to a crossroads as a nation.

Since 9/11, we’ve been traveling down a road bristling with guns, military technology, paranoia and fear.  Though most of our aggressive energy has been aimed outside our borders, there has also been a steady preparation for mass violence within the U.S. as well.  In the decade since 9/11, our national police forces have been armed with military hardware, and have trained extensively in riot control, with the results that we saw for the first time during the recent Occupy protests.

In the peaceful town of Fargo, North Dakota, report Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation—if it ever occurs—officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret.”

Billions of federal tax dollars have been spent nationwide on this kind of military hardware for police, in the name of Homeland Security.

Security from what?  Security for whom?

Short of an all-out military invasion by a foreign force, which seems hugely unlikely, these weapons can only be meant to confront an insurgency within our own borders.

Are we thinking about a civil war, then?

Are these police being armed and trained to protect the interests of the 1% against the raging anger of the 99%?

A year ago it would not have occurred to me to ask these questions.  But obviously the Homeland Security crowd was already thinking ahead and planning for a time when such armor and weapons would be necessary to “maintain security” and “uphold law and order” on the home front.

Yes, they must have been aware, even as they were cashing in on our ignorance, that there would come a time when no more could be squeezed from the bottom two-thirds of American society.  When there would be so many homeless, so many poor, so many disenfranchised, that these people would feel they had no other recourse than violence, and nothing left to lose.

 

A new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that “more than 1.6 million children – or one in 45 children – are homeless annually in America. This represents an increase of 38% during the years impacted by the economic recession.”

I’m sorry, but that is just unacceptable in this country, which likes to think of itself as the wealthiest and most enlightened society on earth.

When you add up all the trials and tribulations being visited on the poor in this country–and “the poor” is a vast category that gets bigger day by day–and you weigh billions in Homeland Security anti-terrorism outfits for police against dwindling food and shelter for children–well, something just isn’t right here.  There’s something rotten in the state of America.

And yes, we are at a crossroads.

It may seem to some that I am over-reacting, but this is the way it feels to me: if we continue following along docilely on this daisy path that we’ve been led down by the architects of corporate capitalism, we are like the Jews of Germany in 1940, peacefully gathering our belongings and getting on that train to Auschwitz, or marching cooperatively out to the forest to be mowed down by machine guns into the mass grave.

We know enough now to know that the powers that be do not have our best interests at heart.

We’ve been sickened by their chemicals, and our health care system seems geared to treat sickness (at a profit) rather than to promote wellness.  Our oceans, air, soils and drinking water have been contaminated and rendered toxic. Our taxes have been used for guns and landmines instead of schools and social welfare.  Those who have gotten rich in this system have done so on the backs of the poor and those who cannot defend themselves: the natural world above all.

Are we going to continue down this path?

Or are we going to gather our courage at this crossroads, and strike off in a new direction?

A lot of people are asking this question now.  Over on the New Clear Vision blog, Charles Imboden suggests that the Occupy movement has ignited a renewed “commitment to direct democracy and shunning of ‘representative,’ republican forms of decision-making (so often susceptible to corruption and corporate influence) [which] can be further strengthened as the foundation of the egalitarian, ecological society.”

As one of my readers commented today, what would happen if they held an election and we just didn’t show up?

I don’t know if there is a way to cut ourselves loose from the federal government and its taxpayer-supported state terror apparatus.  Thoreau tried, back in the 19th century, and was promptly thrown in jail.

His letter from prison is worth re-reading today.

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice …is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

As we gear up for next year’s Presidential elections, we must take these wise words of Thoreau’s to heart.

But we must also be aware, as Thoreau certainly was, that there are other paths to take, outside of the machine.

We stand at a crossroads.  Each of us must make up our own minds, in our own time.

How much longer will we continue to docilely feed the machine our tax dollars, and march peacefully where they lead us?

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