Along with honor killings, slavery, and polygamy, personal charity is a relic of barbarism. As civilization advances, the satisfaction of basic human needs moves from the realm of personal charity to the realm of civic solidarity. The extent to which a modern society still relies on personal charity to provide unfortunate individuals with adequate access to food, shelter, medicine, and even education, by way of scholarships, should be a source, not of personal pride on the part of generous philanthropists, but of collective shame on the part of the community.
As society progresses, so must values. A century ago, one set of my great- grandparents in Texas, who headed a struggling farm family with nearly a dozen children, would sometimes let unemployed wanderers take shelter in the barn, before they continued on their way.
Another ancestor, my great-great-grandfather, a prosperous German Jewish immigrant grocer in Austin, along with his wife around 1900 took in a young Southern white girl named Tracy, aged about 12, who showed up one day on their door step with her only possession, the dress she was wearing. She explained that her impoverished family had thrown her out to fend for herself. Tracy — they never learned her last name — lived until her death as a member of the family with my great-great-grandparents and later with two of my great-aunts and was buried in the family plot.
Later, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, my mother’s middle-class family provided gifts of food to unemployed men. Eventually the family discovered that their house was identified among “hobos” as the home of generous donors by a combination of stones and sticks that formed a signal in code.
In those days, such deeds were meritorious (I don’t want to give the impression that most of my ancestors were saints; one was a 17th century Scottish pirate who prowled Chesapeake Bay). But since the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, enlightened social reform in the United States has rendered those forms of personal charity anachronistic.
Since 1935, the U.S. has provided public unemployment insurance, so that the unemployed do not have to roam the country begging for food and shelter during economic downturns or industrial transitions. And today, if a homeless waif shows up on your doorstep, it is possible to call Social Services.
Social insurance programs paid for out of taxation, like unemployment insurance and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, have largely replaced traditional charity. This is a welcome development, not something to be lamented.
Much ink has been spilled bemoaning the decline of “intermediate institutions” by conservatives attached to the idea of Burkean “little platoons” and by communitarian scholars worried about the loss of social capital, like Robert Putnam in his celebrated book Bowling Alone. I discussed this subject once with an elderly friend of the family. He recalled the days before the New Deal, when to be able to afford burial insurance for themselves and their families many men had no choice but to join fraternal organizations like the Masons or the Oddfellows. He recalled “the old folks’ home,” an institution run by churches or fraternal lodges to care for those unfortunate enough not to have family members to live with in their old age.
“What happened to all those fraternal organizations?” I asked him.
“Social Security,” he said.
If he was correct, as I think he was, the number of those like my great-uncle Cornelius who joined the Shriners motivated by their wish to do good works, make friends, take part in secret rituals, and wear a fez was pretty small all along. For many, membership in fraternal lodges was motivated by access to economic benefits, and when the benefits became government entitlements the membership collapsed to a small, stable core of fellowship-loving funny-hat mavens. If this be anomie, make the most of it!
Now that enlightened social reform has eliminated most of the traditional forms of distress that provided occasions for personal charity, the most common act of charity in the U.S. is probably giving spare change or a few dollars to the panhandlers who are often found at bus stops, metro stations or traffic intersections or downtown business districts.
I have found that tourists and immigrants who grew up in Third World countries with mass poverty tend to assume that American panhandlers are similar to the poor in their homelands. But many if not most U.S. beggars and homeless people are mentally ill or suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. In mid-20th century America, many of them would have been institutionalized and treated. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the libertarian left and the tax-hating right teamed up to empty asylums of the mentally ill and jails of drunks. While involuntary institutionalization had often produced abuses, the sequel has been worse.
Writing in Salon in 2013, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey describes the impact of these misguided reforms on San Jose, California:
As early as 1971 the local newspaper decried “this mass invasion of mental patients.” Some patients left their board-and-care homes because of the poor living conditions, whereas others were evicted when the symptoms of their illness recurred because they were not receiving medication, but both scenarios resulted in homelessness. By 1973 the San Jose area was described as having “discharged patients…living in skid row…wandering aimlessly in the streets…a ghetto for the mentally ill and mentally retarded.”
Since the 1970s, the idea that the mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts have an inalienable right to live on public property and subsist on handouts from strangers seems to have been accepted by many Americans. One very liberal woman of my acquaintance boasted to me that she and others had lobbied to prevent a city from evicting dozens of homeless people from the local public space in which they had taken up residence. She and her upper-middle-class friends gave the squatters, not only food and drink and clothing, but also bits of cardboard, to help them construct a shanty-town like a Brazilian favela or a Depression-era Hooverville for hobos — in the middle of a city park.
I was horrified. This lady and her fellow philanthropists were acting as “enablers,” to use the term from psychological—enabling bad behavior by indulging it. The bad behavior in this case was not of the poor whose misery they were palliating. No, the well-meaning do-gooders were enabling the disgraceful malfeasance of the city, state and federal elites who had failed to help these unfortunates.
In an advanced technological civilization, those who are homeless through no fault of their own deserve to be housed at public expense in decent conditions. Those who are unemployed through no fault of their own deserve to be provided by the state with jobs, either directly or indirectly, by means of wage subsidies to private employers. And those who are incapable of employment because of addiction or psychological problems need therapy, not handfuls of coins and donations of cardboard. All of this must be paid for by adequate taxes on those who can best afford to pay them.
I am not blaming the victims. I am blaming the victimizers — contemporary taxpayers, particularly affluent taxpayers, who would prefer to have public parks converted into shanty-towns than allow their own taxes to be increased to pay for more asylums and halfway houses and drug and alcohol treatment centers. In a civilized modern country, it should not be acceptable that the mentally ill sleep on grates and that drug addicts camp out under highway overpasses. Educated and affluent people who take such horrors for granted may consider themselves enlightened. They may even give generously to charity. But by tolerating squalor and suffering that should be eliminated by adequate tax-funded social services, they prove that they are barbarians. •
Image courtesy of Patrik Theander via Flickr (Creative Commons).