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I don’t like giving money to poor people. I do give money to the poor, but I don’t like doing it. I don’t like having the power to choose who does and who doesn’t get my spare change. That’s not the sort of power I want. If it were up to me, of course, no one would be poor. But as it stands, unfortunately, I don’t have enough change in my pocket to make that happen.

Charity might seem like a great thing but, really, it’s a sign of confusion over how to deal with poverty. It's not a solution to social inequality, it's a symptom of it. If we want - as a country, as a society - to seriously address the massive problem of poverty - so digustingly apparent in Vancouver - we should realize that relying on the whims of individual and corporate donations isn’t going to work.

Dealing with poverty has to be more systematic than charity: a conscious, public act by government (which is, after all, about maintaining social welfare), not an optional and "praise-worthy" act of a private benefactor.

In our slowly dying age of Globalization and economics-as-a-religion-for-our-political-leaders, charity has made a comeback from its Victorian days as a misguided force for dealing with poverty. Canadian philosopher-historian John Ralston Saul puts it simply: “for reasons of dignity and realism, charity should not and cannot fulfill the needs of a society’s poor, nor can it get the mass of those affected out of poverty.”

Yet still there persists the attitude that the poor are lazy and deserve neglect and ridicule. We’ve likely all heard someone, old or young, shamelessly mock a homeless person, telling them, “Get a job, you lazy bum.” The opposite attitude, you could say, is just as disgraceful: feeling warm and fuzzy, and proud about yourself for giving away a bit of money you don't really need. Spare change makes for cheap karma.

An interesting view on the evolution of charity comes from Ivan Illich (the excommunicated priest I posted about a couple weeks ago), who saw modern Western civilization as a perversion or corruption of Christianity. He pointed to how charity, as practiced by early Christians, was a highly personal act, not something that could be politically organized as a means to combat poverty. Charity, according to Illich, originally was (and ought to be, I take him to mean) about compassion for an individual human face, instead of a distant, abstract social tool.

For early Christians, Illich said, “it was customary…to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle, and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus should knock at the door in the form of a stranger with a roof". The Church, however, in its attempt to make this Christian practice into law, removed the deeply personal element of charity – the face-to-faceness of it – and institutionalized charity into a social service provided by poorhouses and not people. “By assigning the duty to behave in this way to an institution…Christians would lose the habit of reserving a bed and having a piece of bread ready in every home.”

So, Illich argued, what started as an interpersonal relationship based on compassion, turned into a public institution, which then removed the need for people to act charitably to other people. That is, if there is a poorhouse down the road, why bother helping out someone who asks? Charity, in this sense, has turned into the opposite of itself: a perversion or corruption of the original. Or, in Illich’s words: “The personal freedom to choose who will be my other has been transformed into the use of power and money to provide a service.”

Today we see charity as noble means to fill in the gaps of poverty that isn’t taken care of by the state. But the state barely combats poverty as it is, so the gaps are far too deep for charity to possibly fill. Public funding and taxing the private sector is the only truly effective way to do it. With our over-capitalist ideology, however, we continue to demean the poor by reserving for ourselves the power over them to dole out what we deem them worthy of, and leave the business sector under-taxed to the point where giant piles of wealth are amassed and then squandered. This is what corporate bonuses, rather than corporate taxes, amount to.

Despite the fact that charity has moved from the personal level to the institutional one, as Illich emphasized, the sense of obligation did not move with it. Instead of seeing society's obligation to help the poor on a collective level, we focus instead on the woefully insufficient, temporary gestures of either giving out some of our chump change (making us feel good about ourselves), or the equally self-congratulatory and media-friendly public-relations maneuver of corporate charity.

Writing in an era similar to ours - the Victorian age I mentioned earlier, where there was a big gap between the rich and poor, and a smug, condescending, social-Darwinsim-like attitude towards the poor - Oscar Wilde said, “We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best among the poor are never grateful (his emphasis). They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so…Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.”

Or to boil it down ever further, here’s August Strindberg: “All charity is humiliation.”

I keep using the term "Western" as though the problem were the same in Europe as in North America. It's not. Canada is probably the worst western nation when it comes to dealing with poverty and homelessness. Why is that?

In May 2008 John Ralston Saul, quoted above, gave the keynote address at the Inaugural Symposium of The Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars (CAIS) at Simon Fraser University's downtown Harbour Center Campus. Saul's talk was on the public role of the intellectual. In it he said, not without some moral outrage, that the lack of action in Canada on combatting homelessness is "an embarrassment beyond belief and a human tragedy."

Our appalling amount of homelessness, Saul made clear, is a uniquely Canadian failure, and a big part of that failure is the lack of action of the intellectual class. "The job of the scholar and the intellectual," Saul argued to an audience of scholars and intellectuals, "is to watch out for society, to think, to be heard to think, to be seen to think and therefore to act in public.”

When it comes to poverty, Saul asked, Where are the Canadian intellectuals? Why are they not on the public stage, writing articles, holding rallies, putting pressure on the government? The implied answer?: They're distracted from their social duty by their narrow, professional interests. They lack the courage. They've simply failed.

A parallel point in Saul's talk was the decline of globalization and the accompanying lack of public discourse by intellectuals on what should replace it. Without this public discussion, he warned, we're likely to fall victim to another blind, ideological system, like globalism, which in turn will hinder our ability to act.

Charity is a feature of globalization simply because in a free-market system most economic matters are taken out of the hands of goverment - the public sector - leaving economic inequalities to be taken care of by the completely inadequate (precisely because it's optional) funds from the private sector, whether individual or corporate. Businesses (because of their primary focus on competition and profit) and ordinary people (because of their own financial worries) can hardly be relied on to take care of the poor. Even philanthropy, of the Bill and Melinda Gates variety, is too shoddy a patchwork to cover the gross economic disparities between Have and Have-nots.

Like I said, I hate giving money to the poor. Not because I myself am a half-starved student (though that, too), but because in a society as wealthy as ours I shouldn't have to give to the poor in the first place. Putting a human face on charity, in the sense Ivan Illich talked about, can, I think, be translated on to social welfare. If we imagine the poor as fellow human beings, fellow sufferers worthy of the most basic kind of economic equality, we can also imagine and enact social policies that deal with the problem, rather than treating the poor like a statistical phenomenon, worthy only of more studies, surveys, and commisions.

We don't need to "study" the problem of poverty and homelessness any more. And we don't need to build "emergency shelters". That's like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. What we do need is affordable housing and social immersion - a healthy mixing of the well-off and not-so-well-off - rather than social ostrasization and what amounts to segregation. Living together - rich and poor, in the same neighbourhoods, the same buildings - would help each side see the other's human face, and we might not feel so unjustly proud - or arrogantly snobby - when, in those terrible and needless situations, we have to some help someone less fortunate than us.
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

2009-01-06 19:53:55

Your solution by the end will only help the decrease the problem but it won't eliminate it. Thus, in the end it will be just more spare change.

Let's forget the fact that the phenomenon of the rich having open doors for the poor would take a long time for both the rich to get comfortable with and the poor to become accustom to. To generalize the worst of the worst, the rich would have to put away their snobbery and fear of the poor, and the poor would have to put away their own pride of being "too good for charity" or their conning or begging for more.

Let's say that instead society has come to an understanding that it's ok for the rich to let a vagabond in your house and set up a proper living space and the homeless understands that they shouldn't overstay their welcome or whatever other formalities were in place.

That still won't solve poverty. It didn't solve poverty "back in the day" either. There were still poor homeless people.

Because you still have people in the position of the "have" and others as the "have-nots." Although I think we should stick a big bandaid in place of this gushing wound, we need a goal of no "have-nots" that are self-determined. Eliminate the factors that create poverty outside of not having a job (such as money to provide for someone's wheelchair or medicine). Provide enough jobs until the abled and disabled are accommodated for. Decrease unemployment until we're left with only the people who chose to be homeless for psychological reasons. Then do the studies to find out why these people are so demoralized and help them. It's not easy but that's why we need the studies.
REPLIES: Hogan

Hogan

Hogan

2009-01-06 21:27:14

Replying to Alamir:
I was a bit utopian - not to mention scattered - in this piece. It's an extended version of an article that was in the Cap Courier a long while back.

I agree with you, though. There'll always be poverty. The point is to reduce it as much as possible, no to think you'll completely eliminate it.

My main focus was, as usual, the need for government involvement in issues of general social welfare, rather than putting the unfair burden on the lower- to middle-class, or glorifying philanthropy, as a way of reducing poverty. I also think mixing "higher" and "lower" classes in a conscious way would do a lot of good, on an imaginative as well as social level.

Keshiaaa

Keshiaaa

2009-01-06 22:12:37

For you.

Alamir

Alamir

2009-01-07 00:15:19

I agree that your method would help. But I feel that other than the right to health, and that includes society easing the economic burden of say a handicap child, the biggest solution would be more jobs. The problem is getting the right type of jobs, but if everyone can do their part then it works. Look at how many Vancouver "binners" there are. These are homeless people quite willing to work and who spend their whole day collecting bottles to recycle. Why can't we create these into needed jobs? And if there's no need for them why can't we use their skills for some other work that is actually needed? They're a value to society as they are recycling and taking care of the environment and resources (not to mention beauty of the litter-less landscape). The problem, especially in cities like Vancouver, is very simple. It has little to do with changing society or charity but getting these people the right type of jobs. Many of them want to do some form of work and if they know it'll get them a roof on their heads and some economic gain I'm sure they'll do it. If there's an amputee that can't work, then the greatest charity would be to have an infrastructure to teach him the skills where he doesn't need to use his hands. And making sure that it provides enough for a basic living (including the amputees medicine..etc.) and has the potential of growth is what's important. Yes this is similar to the "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him and you feed him for life" argument. So while some people may yell "Get a job.." at the homeless, I'm yelling at society to "Give a job!" to the homeless. Getting people jobs would help the first gradient of homeless people, that is, those who "will work for food."

Now this doesn't account for the people who simply don't want to work or have been so abused in life that they can only beg for mercy. They would require some kind of psychological help which I think society should pay for too. Because there will always be that homeless kid who was abused by their alcoholic father. And society should not just try to replace the father's role, but also reverse his abuse. That's essentially what would be needed.

Capitalism may be wrong in only allowing certain people to be rich or certain people to be employed, but what it does right is it enforces the notion that people have to work for their food. Socialists should be working towards allowing everyone an equal opportunity at reaching capitalist gains. Or am I wrong about this?



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