Where Does Charity End? – Review

Where Does Charity End? – Review – book review

John Buell

In a December 1999 feature article, the New York Times asked a provocative question: why, when “incomes of the better-off Americans rise, [do] charities report that both individuals and companies are donating less to organizations that support the homeless, the young, and the hungry than they did in leaner times?” The Times suggested that yawning social distance between rich and poor and escalating consumption and debt among the upper middle class in the United States trumped any urge to help the poor.

However, one important question the newspaper didn’t ask is whether political and economic reform might be a better response to poverty than charity. A new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It: A Critical Look at American Charity by David Wagner, encourages us to ask this question.

Americans have historically believed that, even if great inequalities are a feature of market societies, charity can be counted on to spread the wealth more evenly. Some left critics have even argued that charity, by alleviating the worst excesses of poverty, has served the masters of the market economy by forestalling revolution.

Wagner, a professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine, provides a much more subtle take on the role of charity: with a few exceptions, philanthropy in the United States has been part of an effort to inculcate and sustain the very values and practices that engendered poverty in the first place. He begins by reminding us that Christian missionaries were pivotal in the eradication of native American culture. Missionaries were genuinely disturbed by the violence meted upon native Americans, but their alternative to conquest was conversion; native Americans could be spared their agony if they would convert to Christianity and accept the more “advanced” Western ways by giving up hunting for settled agriculture, subdividing communal land into individual plots, and putting aside consensual politics for a monarch. At best, missionaries only served to divide and demoralize native American culture.

Missionary work set the tone for subsequent charitable practice. By the early part of the nineteenth century, Bible societies had been organized to “civilize” working-class immigrants. Immigrants who resisted the long hours and harsh working conditions imposed by their bosses were portrayed as “Indians.” Their poverty was seen as a consequence of a character flaw in need of continual modification and monitoring. By the end of the twentieth century, the poor and other minorities had gained some representation on nonprofit boards. Nonetheless, most charitable agencies still continued to view poor clients as primarily in need of their special kind of professional service rather than money or power.

Prevailing notions of wealth and charity have both expressed themselves through, and in turn become further entrenched in, public law. The legal status of private foundations was unclear at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By giving money a vehicle separate from the wealthy donor, foundations helped sanitize the money and gained a clear legal status.

Efforts to professionalize these foundations further blunted criticism of the most egregiously acquired fortunes. Today, the great majority of foundation dollars go to support research that further buttresses the market economy. Even the little genuinely radical research supported in a few left-wing think tanks, valuable as it is, only helps confirm the mistaken belief that the law and policy governing the nonprofit sector sustains a genuinely pluralistic political universe.

Modern charity is part of a larger narrative of deep moral absolutes. In its earliest Protestant incarnations, the wealthy–and by implication the poor–are chosen by God; the wealthy owe the poor an unspecified generosity, and the poor must learn to accept their lot. In its more modern and less deterministic versions, the wealthy retain their virtue and the poor can escape poverty, usually through advice and instruction from the more successful among us.

One reason the affluent today give so little to meet the immediate monetary needs of the poor is that now, as always, too many of the wealthy are more interested in providing moral uplift than food or money. Herein lies one of the great contradictions Wagner so skillfully exposes.

Much of modern charitable efforts, especially the social service variety, makes little attempt to assess in comparative terms the efficacy of various forms of therapy and intervention. The most hardheaded businessperson, one who insists on precise accounting in business dealings, simply assumes that the friendly visit or the encouragement to persist in school will achieve positive results.

The modern nonprofit sector is complex, overlapping, and spectacularly inefficient. It draws extensive direct and indirect taxpayer assistance. Increasingly, it emphasizes a middle-class clientele. Unfortunately such failings seem to matter very little to most affluent contributors–and further demonstrates their attitude toward the poor.

I would also add that the wealthy seldom turn a very sharp eye on themselves. Alcoholism, adultery, and divorce are hardly confined to the lower classes, but it has become an article of faith that these are the principal factors causing poverty–and such explanations are preferred in the face of evidence that poverty varies by region and waxes and wanes rather rapidly during phases of the business cycle.

That a perspective suggesting the moral worth of the wealthy may appeal to that class is hardly surprising, but Wagner perceptively goes on to explain its attraction for many middle- and working-class citizens. For many, caught today in exhausting and insecure jobs and seeing few avenues of escape, the moral narrative does provide some comfort; however deadening one’s circumstances, hard work sets off the middle and working classes from the worst elements of humanity.

Wagner suggests that we pay a heavy price for charity and its guiding mindset. The divisiveness associated with a moralistic view of the world has been politically disastrous. In addition, when activism becomes defined as membership or support of the nonprofit sector, social movements and democratic politics suffer. The requirements and demands of government and private funders place a severe limit on agendas that can be pursued.

The greatest gains for the working class in the United States–such as Social Security and Medicare–were achieved when broad coalitions of poor, working-, and middle-class citizens demanded protections for all against the vagaries and injustices of the market. The poor made their greatest gains in the 1930s and 1960s. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts late in his life to build a coalition of working-class whites and blacks, both against the war and on behalf of labor rights for all, was perhaps the most significant work of his life. Wagner properly finds in King’s life a heroism our culture all too often disregards.

It may be that only periods of depression and other major social turmoil can foster such coalitions. Nonetheless, there is much in the United States today to suggest great discontent about the quality of life. A recent U.S. News and World Report cover story highlights, once again, the overworked citizen and hints, however tamely, that our prosperity is poorly distributed and comes at an enormous mental cost.

It will require a political movement to both focus this discontent and mobilize an opposition. No progressive needs to be told that many business interests would oppose efforts to shorten working hours, strengthen and democratize unions, and improve wage standards and job security for all. What is less evident is the role that the vaunted nonprofit sector plays in sustaining these inequities.

A better life for all requires politics, not charity–and the demystification of charity must be part of the new political practice. There is no better starting place than Wagner’s new book.

John Buell is a freelance writer living in Southwest Harbor, Maine. His e-mail address is jbuell@acadia.net.

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