Charity is not enough

The young man at the checkout counter politely informed me about Harris Teeter’s fund drive for the local food bank and asked if I would donate money.  I did.  I couldn’t load up my car with cranberries, potatoes, and pie ingredients and ignore the fact that so many other people couldn’t do the same. 

 With Thanksgiving just around the corner, food banks, pantries, shelters, churches and synagogues across the state are entering into one of their busiest times.   As many of us plan for a season of feasting with friends and loved ones, we are reminded-- by our ministers and rabbis, newspaper flyers, television news reports and online social networking outlets—“not to forget” those in need.   

As we all know too well, our state and our nation are in a crisis, and many of our neighbors are suffering as a result.  Nearly 17% of North Carolina residents today live under the poverty line, including nearly one quarter of our children.  We have the 9th highest rate of food insecurity (which means uncertain or insufficient access to the food necessary for a healthy life) in the country.  While the homeless are often the public face of poverty, they represent only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who struggle, invisibly, every day.  The lines at our food pantries today are filled not only by the recently unemployed, but also by people with jobs whose wages are so low that they cannot pay their bills and feed their children.

Clearly we need to pitch in where we can; those of us with resources must share with those who are without.  But while charitable turkey dinners bring momentary cheer and sustenance to those who are suffering, and may allow the rest of us to enjoy our own holidays with less guilt, they will do nothing to change the fundamental structures of poverty in which many families find themselves trapped.  

Charity must not remain the extent of our ethical response to poverty.   I had hoped that if the recent financial crisis had a silver lining, it would be that more people would recognize that a national safety net is not a luxury but a necessity; that unemployment and underemployment are not the result of personal failings but of economic forces.  I assumed people would understand that we cannot blame the residents of towns where factories have up and left.  We cannot blame the family whose savings were wiped out by a child’s hospitalization, and who now find it difficult to get insurance.

With the conservative turn in American politics, I am not feeling optimistic.  We are likely to see major cuts to social services, and a return to the rhetoric of privatization instead of talk of the public good.  On the other hand, I am heartened by the news just released by the Half in Ten Campaign –according to a recent poll, a huge majority of voters reject the idea that programs that support low-income families and children should be cut, and 65 percent say Congress should find other ways to reduce the budget deficit.

I am also encouraged by working with colleagues at Duke and UNC on a joint venture called The Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality in North Carolina.  These faculty from diverse backgrounds approach the issues differently, but we all agree that, while charity is indeed a virtue, it will not solve the pain and suffering that surrounds us; we cannot approach poverty on a case-by-case basis.   We will have to take broad economic approaches, including the creation of jobs that both provide living wages and contribute toward the sustainability of our environment.  We must prevent more people from falling into poverty by supporting health care reform.  We need institutional solutions, such as affordable and excellent child care and improved public education.  And we should experiment with new approaches, such as “baby bonds” that would provide a baseline savings account for children born to poor families.

Fundamentally, we have to understand that our futures, and those of our children, are directly linked to the future of the poor around us. 

Implementing all of this in practical terms will take work, and it will be much harder than filling a paper bag with cans.  But even those of us with plenty of money for the grocery store cannot afford to avoid it any longer.  This Thanksgiving, let’s start working together in ways that will make charity less necessary. 

Rachel F. Seidman is a visiting assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and administers the Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality Project. This commentary was originally published in The News and Observer on November 24, 2010.