Empowerment, not charity

Charities tend to obfuscate the deficiencies causing the problems they address.

Charity is bad.

That isn’t a very nice thing to say – especially around the holidays, when different charities compete fiercely for donations and we are constantly reminded of “the joy of giving.”

To many people, attacking charities has to be a lot like attacking kittens. What’s the point of starting quarrels about a group of organizations that are so, well, innocuous? Charities seem innocuous, all right – but that’s the problem. Nothing is totally harmless (OK, maybe kittens) and so when anything – particularly an institution – is thought to be unqualifiedly good or harmless, it’s at least worth it to raise an eyebrow.

I think charities generally do more harm than good because they tend to obfuscate the political deficiencies that actually cause the problems charities claim to address. Take poverty, for instance. For some reason, poor people seem to be the most popular cause during the holidays – far more popular than People With Bad Diseases. So, like clockwork, local news stations love to interview people volunteering at soup kitchens in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

What’s remarkable about these interviews is that they’re virtually indistinguishable from the segments those same local news stations produce in the summer, when volunteers start flocking to areas of the country that have been struck by hurricanes or floods. The pervading theme in these feel-good holiday and summer “local volunteer” news segments is always that the people being helped have “bad luck” and are going through “hard times”; the theme is certainly never political, and no one is ever at fault. In my last column, I mentioned that people talk about the economy the way they talk about the weather: like something that can’t be controlled or managed – only dealt with.

Charities that serve the poor only deal with poverty; they do not attempt to control, reduce or even manage it. That would be too political, too divisive, too alienating, too (gasp) “socialist,” and it might bother some major donors.

The poor in the United States and around the world don’t need charity. They need power.

Here at home, the poor need jobs, health care, strong political representation and solid unions. In some parts of the world, the poor even need guns to defend themselves against the governments, warlords or factory and land owners (or combination thereof) who terrorize them.

Now, in a few narrow and desperate circumstances, things are so bad that it would be totally impractical and counterproductive to focus on anything but providing food, clothing and shelter. But once the bare necessities have been provided, the appropriate inquiry changes from “How can we help these people survive?” to “How can we help these people correct the political and economic situations that create (or even thrive on) poverty?”

The latter inquiry is a political one, so not everyone is going to be happy with the answer. Luckily, the United States is rich enough that people here are not starving to death, which is not to say that a lot of people aren’t still going hungry. This holiday season, most who donate money to charity are going to give to an organization that serves poor people in the United States. That money, I think, is going to be ill-spent because it won’t address the political realities that promote poverty.

Consider, for example, everyone’s two favorite, utterly unobjectionable, fuzzy holiday charities: the Salvation Army and Toys for Tots.

The Salvation Army is a highly puritanical, generic relief organization that believes “we will always have the poor with us” and deplores reproductive rights, “the practice of indiscriminate sexual activity” and the consumption of any amount of alcohol. Meanwhile, Toys for Tots wages a tireless and noble campaign against Christmas present deprivation.

These organizations are worse than bandages. They purport to be making an important difference in the lives of the poor. The nation’s well-meaning but credulous fall for it – in lockstep with some of our biggest “corporate citizens” – mistakes symptoms for the root economic and political maladies that generate poverty.

This holiday season is as good a time as any to stop donating our time, money and resources to nice, milquetoast organizations that don’t challenge anyone. Instead, consider donating money to a strike fund, attending a political rally, helping to pay for a protester’s legal defense or giving old books to a prison library – there are plenty of worthy political causes out there. Let the new rule of thumb be this: If the organization you’re giving to doesn’t have any enemies, it’s not worth giving to.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]