The Lessons of Charity

"Before I can give you this bread, I need you to pee into a cup."

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were walking around downtown Chicago.  It was a beautiful summer afternoon and we were wandering through Millenium Park when we were approached by a homeless man.   Amy reached into her purse and handed the man a $5 bill.  At the time, I was loathe to provide this kind of “direct assistance” to the indigent believing that they would misuse my largesse.  Amy thought otherwise, though I didn’t know if at the time.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“He needed it,” she replied.  “Obviously.”

“But how do you know he won’t go spend it on drugs or booze?” I wondered.

“I don’t.”

“Then why give him money?”

“Because it’s not for me to say how he’ll spend the money.  He can use it for whatever he wants.  I can hope he’ll spend it on food or on some other necessity, but I don’t get to decide for him.”

“But aren’t you just enabling him?  If he goes out and buys booze and he’s an alcoholic, isn’t that like you buying him the booze?”

“Maybe.  But that’s not my problem, it’s his.  He’s entitled to live his life the way he wants to live his life.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to give him something like a McDonald’s gift card?  That way you know what he’ll spend the money on.”

“No.  It’s none of my business how he spends it.  Once I give it to him, it’s his.  I don’t get to have a say.  Why should I?”

“It’s your money!”

“No, it’s his now.  I gave it to him!

“Oh yeah, you did didn’t you.”

I was floored.  I’d never thought of it that way before.  My solution was to rely on contributions to The United Way or the local food pantry, but it was liberating to think that, once you remove the idea of moral superiority from the equation, direct assistance actually makes sense.

Several years before our encounter in the park I was travelling alone in Hyderabad on business.  Hyderabad was an up-and-coming city in south-central India.  While there, I was confronted by the deep and enduring poverty suffered by so many.  On my last full day, I had the hotel give me change for two 1,000 Rupee note in 10s.  I spent several hours handing out the two-hundred worn bills, each with a faded image of Gandhi.   I soon realized that there would never be enough to go around for everyone in need.  It didn’t mean what I did was wrong, but I allowed myself to be hardened by the false futility of bailing the bottomless ocean of poverty with my 2,000 Rupee thimble.  I say false because, even though I couldn’t help everyone, I could (and did) help some.  I did what I could.  But I cried myself to sleep that last night in Hyderabad.

So I was, in word, jaded when Amy handed the homeless man in Millennium Park that $5 bill; jaded both by my belief in the moral superiority of the giver and in the futility of bailing that ocean with a little thimble.

Flash forward to now and we find an increasing sentiment among The Defenders of the Moral Order ™ that people on public assistance should submit to drug testing in order to qualify for benefits.  Lazy and shiftless, we are led to believe, these parasites of the public purse need to be kept under close scrutiny to make sure that they don’t spend their welfare on hookers and blow.

These benefits are, for all intents and purposes, public charity.  And encumbered charity is no charity.  Do you think Mother Theresa insisted on a drug test before she would administer charity?

Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity on their way to pick up the latest batch of drug test results before helping the poor.

But this is precisely what is happening in America today.

Nearly two dozen states are considering measures that would make drug testing mandatory for welfare recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wyoming lawmakers advanced such a proposal last week.

Driving the measures is a perception that people on public assistance are misusing the money and that cutting off their benefits would save money for tight state budgets — even as statistics have largely proved both notions untrue.

Recent federal statistics indicate that welfare recipients are no more likely than the general population to abuse drugs. Data show that about 8 percent of people use drugs illegally. Before a random drug testing program in Michigan was suspended by a court challenge, about 8 percent of its public assistance applicants tested positive.

So without regard to the statistics, to the actual data which show categorically that welfare recipients are no more likely to abuse drugs, we chose to stigmatize our most vulnerable citizens in a way that forces them to prove their innocence before they receive the help they need.

This is just plain wrong.

The presumption of guilt, the stigmatization of the vulnerable and the moral superiority of the righteous are all at play here.  I believe our need to “lord it over” the indigent stems from our perceived moral superiority over the poor.  The poor are poor because of some moral failing.  We seem incapable of admitting to ourselves that the American Dream, for some, is an American Nightmare.

We presume that because, as the giver, we have purchased the right to impose our will on the recipient.  It’s a form of moral enslavement.  My own mistake in the encounter I wrote about above, what my wife taught me, is that once the gift is given, our control ends.  And she’s right.

Although the imposition of this have/have-not hierarchy is generally anathema to me, I didn’t recognize it at first.  To require a recipient of charity, whether a $5 bill from my wife’s wallet or through public assistance, to subjugate the will of the recipient to the will of the giver morally diminishes both.  It artificially elevates the giver and unjustly subjugates the recipient.

It is a gift with strings attached.  It is a false charity.

Welfare as a form of charity or gift given by a society to those in need should be provided without reservation or expectation.  We should treat the recipient with the dignity we would wish for ourselves and with an expectation that the recipient will demonstrate the same measure of personal responsibility we would expect of ourselves.  Instead, we are confronted with conservative politicians who believe it’s their right to treat welfare recipients like chattel.

“The idea from Joe Taxpayer is, ‘I don’t mind helping you out, but you need to show that you’re looking for work, or better yet that you’re employed, and that you’re drug and alcohol free,’ ” said Edward A. Buchanan, a Republican who is the speaker of the Wyoming House.

Slaves in the Antebellum South were also subject to similar restrictions.

The African slaves’ access to alcohol in America was governed by the Slave Codes. These codes governed all aspects of slave life, prohibiting living by oneself, traveling without a pass, gathering in groups, and owning a weapon. Buying or drinking alcohol was prohibited except under conditions defined by the slave’s owner (Larkins, 1965). The restrictions on drinking were spawned by two concerns. First, slave owners were worried about alcohol-related damage to their property, e.g., the financial loss incurred if a slave was injured or killed while drinking. Second, slave owners feared slave insurrections after the slave revolts led by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831), and believed that alcohol could spark such rebellions (Katz, 1990).

It is only our false belief in our moral superiority as the giver that makes us feel as if we cannot “trust” the recipient to do the “right thing,” whatever that “right thing” may be.  We believe that because we are in a position to help someone that we are somehow better than them and are in a position to dicate the nature of the relationship.  We are mistaken.

That is not charity, it is enslavement.  We believe that through our charity we can purchase the freedom of the recipient.

We should never assume that the recipient will somehow misuse what’s been given.  But even if they do, is that not their choice?  Should they not have the freedom to make their own choices?  Even if they make bad choices, the gift is now theirs, not ours.  One the gift is given, should we not let go?

We allow bigotry and prejudice, a false image of the “welfare queen” to dictate policy.  We act as though some citizens are more equal than others.  Once again we privilege taxpayers over citizens.

Like their desire to control women’s reproductive freedom, conservatives attempt to control the act of charity in the false framework of a perceived moral superiority that detracts from us all.



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6 thoughts on “The Lessons of Charity

  1. Drug testing is a real money maker for the Republicans who own the franchise. The criminalization of the working class is just a propaganda bonus for them. The point is to make the population as cowed and subservient and possible. Pee in the cup, show us your papers, walk through the scanner, assume the position for a pat-down, be careful what body-language you present, be courteous to authority figures and: “What is that book you’re reading?” Acknowledge that the Suits are your social betters and that Natural Law gives them power over your life. You can do it the easy way or the hard way.

  2. I agree with the premise that once a gift is given, we should relinquish claim to how it is used. But the conclusion does not follow from that premise; you wrongly conflate considerations made before giving with conditions attached to the gift. Deciding whether to give or not is not an act of moral superiority; it is a marshaling of scarce resources. We cannot give to everyone who asks, or we would soon have nothing left to give and would ourselves be asking. In deciding whether to give to a charity, failing to consider how responsibly a charity uses its money is failing to use our own money responsibly. The government’s duty to use money responsibly is even greater, because it isn’t the government’s money. Further, you contradict your own claim. You write, “Welfare … should be provided without reservation or expectation.” Yet one sentence later, you write, “We should treat the recipient … with the expectation … of personal responsibility.” You can’t have it both ways. Finally, the statistics showing that welfare recipients are no more likely to do drugs than the rest of society are irrelevant: The rest of society is not asking for money from society. My duty to choose wisely the recipients of my charitable giving requires me to set certain criteria: perhaps a certain percentage of funds spent on programs as compared with fundraising and administration, reasonable salaries for executives, certain thresholds of accountability and transparency, for instance. Surely society has the right — indeed, the duty — to set some criteria for the recipients of its charity as well. (For the record, I do not believe drug testing to be a particularly good or wise criterion. But your attempt to frame it as morally wrong falls well short.)

    1. you wrongly conflate considerations made before giving with conditions attached to the gift.

      No, I believe that that is my entire point. Pre-conditions detract from the morality of the act. The Sisters of Charity don’t drug test recipients. All those in need are welcome. The same should apply to the American safety net. There are only “scarce resources” because we impose them. It’s another morality story we tell ourselves. That does not make it true.

      Means-testing is not, in my mind, the same thing. We can ascribe Marx’s measure of social value to the problem by saying “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Personally, I believe it is not immoral to means-test charity. That way society can ensure that the application of resources is appropriate based upon the need.

      Finally, the statistics showing that welfare recipients are no more likely to do drugs than the rest of society are irrelevant: The rest of society is not asking for money from society.

      You’ve missed my point entirely. Those two things are only connected by a thread of implied (nay, imposed) morality on your part. There is no necessary connection but the one that those who seek to impose their will on others will ascribe to it.

      The government’s duty to use money responsibly is even greater, because it isn’t the government’s money. Further, you contradict your own claim. You write, “Welfare … should be provided without reservation or expectation.” Yet one sentence later, you write, “We should treat the recipient … with the expectation … of personal responsibility.” You can’t have it both ways.

      Well, actually, it is the government’s money. In a Republic, we elect representatives to spend the money collected through taxes. They are charged with spending it in ways that provide the greatest social benefit (theoretically). The belief that somehow it is still your money after you pay it in taxes is false. It is our money, collectively.

      But I don’t understand your assertion that I am having it “both ways.” The concept of “personal responsibility” falls squarely within the framework of negative liberty. That is, the freedom to act, unencumbered by other people. That is the very definition of “Welfare … should be provided without reservation or expectation.” The expectation of a state of negative liberty is without reservation in every meaningful sense.

      Don’t worry, as a conservative (I’m making an assumption here, so I’m happy to be wrong) you’re not alone in your desire to create and impose hierarchy on others. Corey Robin wrote a whole book about it.

  3. a) I’m not conservative.
    b) If you like the idea of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, then you are a communist, not a liberal, and you give liberalism a bad name.
    c) If you fail to see the inherent contradiction between saying we should give without expectation and saying we should give with the expectation of personal responsibility, then you are a fool.
    d) If you believe resources are scarce only because we tell ourselves a morality tale, then you are either a bazillionaire or delusional. Those of us living in the real world recognize that we cannot give without limits unless we ourselves want to become recipients of others’ largesse instead of donors. If I give away more money than I earn, presently I will have no more money, followed by no more house and no more food. This is not a morality tale; it is reality, and recognizing it does not require taking on any supposed “moral superiority”.

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