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

Here come the health care refugees

It is stunning—and revolting–the depths to which ultra-conservative Republicans will go to harm their fellow Americans.  Particularly fellow Americans of color.

Living in Massachusetts, a state with an especiallly progressive health care safety net (thanks in part to the efforts of then-Governor Mitt Romney, a then-moderate Republican), I hadn’t been paying that much attention to what was happening with health care reform out in the rest of the country.

This morning’s headliner in The New York Times—“Millions of Poor Are Left Uncovered by Health Law”—was a real wake-up call.

How could it be that “two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of low-wage workers without insurance” will be left stranded by Obamacare?

Simple.  The Supreme Court, although it upheld the health care exchange idea, also allowed states to choose to opt out of the expansion of federally funded Medicaid benefits.  Even though the federal government would cover the cost of the expansion through 2016, and at least 90% of Medicaid expenses thereafter, Republican-controlled state legislatures have balked at the prospect of picking up the tab for even 10% of an expanded Medicaid program that would provide health care for millions of people in their states.

It seems they’d rather let those people suffer and die.

http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/liberalia-and-teapartystan-divide-over-the-aca/

According to The Times, “The 26 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion are home to about half of the country’s population, but about 68 percent of poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers. About 60 percent of the country’s uninsured working poor are in those states. Among those excluded are about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses’ aides.”

What would happen if those working poor, the minimum wage earners who clean those Republican legislators’ houses, take care of their children, cook their meals, and tend to their aging parents in nursing homes—what would happen if they just up and left?

I have a vision of a vast migration of health care refugees, fleeing the red states just like they did after it became clear that the end of chattel slavery did not mean the end of bondage—it just morphed into debt bondage and serfdom.

If states can say “No thanks” to Federal Medicaid coverage, citizens should be able to say “No thanks” to states.  Let’s see how they like it down in Mississippi and Alabama when there’s no one left to flip their burgers and shine their shoes.

This Thanksgiving, Imagine Another World…

The idea of Occupying the Malls on Black Friday, which I first posted about here, is gaining momentum day by day.

Occupy Seattle and other Occupations in various cities will be protesting WalMart this Friday, and I have a feeling that between now and Nov. 25, Black Friday, the idea will continue to gain traction.

The movement is not just protesting against what it objects to (in this case, excessive consumerism); it’s also offering positive alternatives, like the massive Occupy Thanksgiving that will take place in Liberty Square tomorrow, offering free Thanksgiving meals to all comers.

On Thanksgiving, it’s traditional for the privileged to donate food to the needy, so that they can celebrate this foodie holiday too.

This Thanksgiving we need to be thinking about more than turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, and simply extending charity is not going to make the grade.

We should be asking why it is that some people have so much, and others nothing at all.  It’s not about laziness or inherent intelligence, as some social analysts have tried to suggest.  It’s about a society in which the playing field is sharply tilted from the beginning in the favor of those who already have certain characteristics.

People who are tall, thin, fair-skinned, attractive, Judeo-Christian, male and born into educated families are far more likely to succeed in America than anyone else (with attractive white women a close second).

For these privileged people, extending charity on Thanksgiving or Christmas may make make them feel better about themselves, but it does nothing to change the circumstances for those born on the other side of the playing field–the other side of the tracks.

In 2010, 46.9 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 — the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty .  This is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published (USDA Economic Research Service, 2011). 

In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States (US Census, 2010). 

These numbers are unconscionable for the wealthiest nation on earth.

We’re often reminded that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next FOURTEEN military powers combined–seven times more than China, the nearest competitor.

Imagine if even a portion of those billions of dollars being spent on bombs, mines, drones, fighter planes and tanks were redirected to civil society.

Imagine if we thought not in terms of charity and “food aid” but restructuring social systems so as to stitch together a global safety net.

Imagine if the U.S. really got behind the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, announced in 2000, calling for an end to world poverty by 2015.

This Thanksgiving, let’s usher in a new era, in which competition and consumerism give way to collaboration and a focus on using the wealth of our nation–and our planet–for positive, life-enhancing purposes.

Whether we occupy the malls this holiday season or serve soup in a food kitchen, we should be thinking seriously about how to reshape our society to bring our national spending in line with our ideals.

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