Is Charity the Answer for the Working Poor?

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article on the minimum wage debate.   I wrote:

Judging by the comments on articles advocating for a raise in the minimum wage, there are a number of things that some of the vocal posters are clear they do not want to do:

1. Raise the minimum wage

2. Continue giving food stamps and Medicaid to low wage workers

3. Pay more for products and services or ask business owners to share more of their profits with workers

So what does that leave?

I did a quick search to get an idea of how many people are currently working full time and not making enough to have stable housing and food. I got these figures from a site called The Center for Constitutional Rights.

In 2011, the US Department of Labor reported at least 10 million people worked and were still below the unrealistic official US poverty line, an increase of 1.5 million more than the last time they checked.  The US poverty line is $18,530 for a mom and two kids.  Since 2007 the numbers of working poor have been increasing.  About 7 percent of all workers and 4 percent of all full-time workers earn wages that leave them below the poverty line….

Dr. Amy Glasmeier of Penn State University has created a Living Wage Calculator that estimates the hourly wage needed to pay the cost of living for low wage families in the US.  It breaks down the cost of living by state and locality across the nation.  In New Orleans, a mom with one child needs to earn $17.52 to make ends meet.  In New York, the mom with one child should earn $19.66 to make it.   If we now realistically calculate the number of people who work and do not earn a living wage, the numbers of working poor in the US skyrocket to several tens of millions.

So, there are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks and if employment doesn’t pay them enough to live on, and we are not comfortable with having a large segment of our population working full time and going hungry, we need to come up with some way to help these people get by. If not raising their wages or having social programs administered by the government through taxes perhaps charity is the answer.

As I researched how much charities would have to come up with in order to make up the difference, I found an article on Patheos with the title Can the Church Alone Provide Welfare to the Poor?

In 2009, the federal government  spent around $6.6 billion on WIC alone, which doesn’t count the money that each state kicked in as well. Do a little thought experiment with me for a moment. According to an article by Christianity Today written in January 2011, the average evangelical gives about 4% of his or her income to the church. In 2011, the average household income was around $51,413. The US population was around 311 million people in 2011, and evangelicals made up about 26% of the population. That’s roughly 80 million evangelicals in the United States. A good approximation of household is probably four per house, which means 20 million households making an average of $51,413. That works out to $2,000 per household in church giving, which would give us $40 billion to play with. If WIC costs $6.6 billion, every evangelical church would have to donate almost 17% of its budget to help mothers in need…17% of your church’s budget gone to provide these basic necessities. What do you suppose the numbers would look like if we began to include housing help, utilities, and helping those with disabilities?

So it seems as though we would have to give substantially more for charity to get the job done.  So lets assume for the moment that we did decide as a society that we would mobilize churches and social organizations and implement austerity so that more of what we put in the collection plate goes to the poor than to whatever it is earmarked for now (landscaping, building new wings, keeping the furnace going, and so on.) Those of a libertarian bent tend to think this is the best route in any case because it gives donors the freedom to decide what they want to support and who is deserving of their aid. What would they, then, support?

Here we run into the problem of the invisible famine.  People tend to be sympathetic to people who they see as being like them. People also tend to be entirely unaware of problems that fall outside their own personal experience. That is why the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in its article on the “Philanthropy 50”– the top super-rich, mega-donors– noted that “most of the money went to big, elite institutions. Seventy-two percent of the dollars pledged supported higher education, arts and culture, hospitals, and private foundations.”

Charity also has a habit of drying up just as it is most needed. When the economy is bad, people give less.  Among the Philanthropy 50, the article reports “megaphilanthropy last year remained below levels seen before 2007’s economic shock.”

The rich may grab all the headlines when it comes to giving, but in fact it is the middle class and the poor who give the most as a percentage of their incomes. As Ken Stern wrote in The Atlantic:

In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.
Why would this be? The only logical explanation is that those who struggle themselves are much more aware of the problems people can face, while the rich are more insulated from them. They do not have intuitive understanding of people not being able to pay medical bills or afford gasoline for their commute or not having a suit that would allow them to ace a job interview. They are aware of the symphony and the ballet in ways that the poor generally are not.
A social safety net funded entirely by charity becomes much more of a consumer model. You pay for what you or your people use. You support the people whose stories personally move you. What that leaves out are those who are not very good at PR.  Will people be as apt to empathize with those of another race or religion?   Who will help those who are not articulate, not well dressed enough, or who are too well dressed (“if you can afford that coat you don’t need my help”).  Will the most support go to the best story tellers and the ones who most look the part?  As I have noted here before, people seem to be very good at coming up with reasons to withhold compassion.  Those who need the most help are often not the most shiny, bright and appealing. As the New York Times pointed out: “Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.”
Just today in my WordPress newsfeed was an article by Mark Carrigan, editor of The Sociological Imagination, about a trend of hostility towards charities. He, in turn, quotes Nick Cohen in The Guardian who wrote about his visit to a food bank.

Put bluntly, the Conservatives hope to scrape the 2015 election by convincing a large enough minority that welfare scroungers are stealing their money. They cannot admit that a real fear of hunger afflicts hundreds of thousands. Hence, Lord Freud, the government’s adviser on welfare reform, had to explain away food banks by saying: “There is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”  My visit to the food bank showed that our leaders’ ignorance has become a deliberate refusal to face a social crisis. Of course, the volunteers help working families and students as well as the unemployed and pensioners. Everyone apart from ministers knows about in-work poverty. As preposterous is the Tory notion that the banks are filled with freeloaders.

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