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On Giving

As Covid-19 continues its rampage through the cities and towns of America, charity has come to the fore. From individual acts like tipping to-go restaurant employees more than usual through larger-scale donations and trusts, many of us are extending helping hands in recognition of an unprecedented time in our lives.

And the need is real! In the last month, according to the New York Times, there have been 22 million unemployment claims filed with the federal government, “roughly the net number of jobs created in the nine-and-a-half year stretch from the last recession to the current pandemic’s arrival”. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe the numbers will slow down any time soon. Many of the people hit hardest were already economically vulnerable; a large share of Americans lives only one or two paychecks away from falling below the poverty line and plenty more are ‘under-employed’.

Those who can help, should help.

But let me be clear- it’s a shame we need individual charity at all. I recently gave $50 to Helping Women Period, an organization that supplies feminine products to homeless women, and that is a small fraction of my income. But if corporations donated the same percentage of their profits, it would radically transform our social landscape, and it would have no impact on their ability to pay workers. As venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya recently said, “if CEO’s can’t summer in the Hamptons, who cares?”.

There is a balance- individuals should want to help other people, for sure. But the impacts of generosity from the middle class and working class is meaningless compared to holding corporations accountable- for whom much is given, much is required. No one is off the hook, as individuals sharing this planet, but individuals should not be the starting point for discussions of munificence towards those in need.

Perhaps the most at risk population in the United States is the homeless population. The homeless don’t “have it good” anywhere in the world, but they are particularly in danger here in the US, since our social safety nets generally amount to simply volunteer charity. Federal and state allocations to homeless assistance programs have continuously dropped over the years, as have monies for mental health treatment facilities.

I’ve talked to homeless folks in five or six different places that I have lived across the country over the years, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of people since 2000 about charity in general and giving to the homeless specifically. Two trends emerge. From the homeless: when asking for money, those most likely to give are people in beat-up cars and working-class clothes, not those who appear affluent. And from the non-homeless I have talked to: the most common refrain is that they would consider giving them money, but fear they will just “waste it”.

The first seems reasonable to me. Perhaps those who are economically marginalized realize that they could easily be that person asking for help if things change for the worse- ‘there but for the grace of god go I’. This is simple conjecture; I really don’t know. But maybe those who are affluent have been in an economically privileged position for much of their life and have bought into the notion of the US being a meritocracy, as estranged from reality as it is.

This notion I believe bleeds into the second trend I’ve noticed. If one really feels that we all get what we deserve and deserve what we get, then the idea of the homeless or poor ‘wasting’ the money makes more sense. Beyond the obvious refutation of this (many poor people work extremely hard and yet are still poor, and many wealthy people don’t do jack-shit and are still wealthy), I’d like to examine what is really best for people, and then, our motives to give.

A homeless man scavenging through a cigarette disposal stand outside the grocery asked me for money recently and when I came back out of the store, I gave him a few dollars and a pack of cheap cigarettes (do “cheap” and “cigarettes” even go together? Holy mackerel, I’m glad I’m not that kind of smoker). An elderly woman who witnessed our exchange pulled me aside as I walked to my truck and gently chastised me for giving him unhealthy supplies. “I only give them water and food, which is best for them, not money or cigarettes or whatnot” she said.

I immediately thought of the song by the singer/philosopher Lazyboy: “This homeless guy asked me for money the other day. I was about to give it to him and then I thought he was going to use it on drugs or alcohol. And then I thought, that's what I'm going to use it on. Why am I judging this poor bastard? People love to judge homeless guys. Like if you give them money, they're just going to waste it. Well, he lives in a box, what do you want him to do? Save it up and buy a wall unit? Take a little run to the store for a throw rug and a CD rack? He's homeless.”

Second, what is your motive to give? At times I feel that people give only when it serves the purpose of making THEM feel better, not necessarily the person they are giving to. Is the goal to ease someone’s pain and allow them some peace, whether I feel it’s healthy or not? Or is the goal to make myself feel better by saying that ‘I help those in need’? The woman who spoke to me outside the grocery store no doubt thought she was helping people by giving homeless folks what she thought they should have, disregarding what they think they should have. Is the motive altruism or is it to make oneself seem generous?

If I may, I would like to conclude with a quote about giving from Khalil Gibran, one of my favorite writer/poets, from his magnificent work “The Prophet”, and urge everyone to help others, for the sake of others, not for their own sake:

“You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish. Surely, he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you. And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream. And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed? See first that you yourself deserve to be giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life- while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”

[Photo credit: City of Vancouver Homeless Action Committee. Retrieved from]

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Thanks for the reply! I've been considering this whole concept/discussion since I read your initial post. I think some organizations can be more comprehensive in the care they give. For example, a shelter can provide more than one hot meal a day; perhaps fresh clothing, safety (even temporary), medical care, a place to sleep, and possibly an avenue to find employment--all of that goes far beyond giving an individual $20 and a Happy Meal. Granted, to that individual, that meal and money might get them through something in the moment, while the shelter might get them to the future. Does that make sense? I often wonder if (since I never carry cash on hand) it is acceptable, or insulting, to…

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J.R. Woodward
J.R. Woodward
05 may 2020

Rachelle Wadsworth: I appreciate your comment! Perhaps society has been 'schooled' to give to organizations instead of people- why do you think that is? I certainly think giving to an organization is useful and I encourage that, as well as giving to the individual- one provides more long term services, the other provides immediate assistance. Either way, I think 'giving' is the key, but the lack of charity to individual people is still perplexing to me.

I'm not sure about your charity question. If people get what they need, then that is the ultimate goal I suppose. But if people don't have the right 'motive', they might be less inclined to give, so people won't get what they need...

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J.R. Woodward
J.R. Woodward
05 may 2020

"DoctorDevine": Thank you for your comment! Thanks for pointing out the distinction between internal and external attributions, that makes total sense. As a sociologist, I think the external are much more important, since the internal factors are still shaped by the external social environment. Thanks again!

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I find it interesting that your respondents of non-homeless primarily fell into "I'd give but they'd waste it" category. I, thankfully, fall into the non-homeless category, but often ponder "There but for the grace..." etc. (--and I'm one-step away from being atheist, but still believe in the concept of 'grace.') When I find homeless holding signs asking for money, I hit on 2 things: 1) I almost never, ever carry cash, and 2) hasn't Society been "schooled" to contribute to organizations for the homeless, rather than the homeless directly? In your view, does contributing to shelters/organizations that work to feed and provide opportunities for the homeless count less than giving directly to the individual? If so, why? I'm curious as to…

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What a great, honest discussion of charity in general, but also as it pertains to helping our homeless population. To add one more thought, research shows that people are more likely to help those in need when we believe that the "problem" is caused by something external to the person in need, basically when we make an external attribution (e.g., something terrible happened to the person). We are less likely to help someone when we make an internal attribution for their circumstance (e.g., he or she is a lazy person). For some reason, people often make internal attributions for a person's homelessness! The truth is that homelessness typically IS caused by tragic circumstances beyond a person's control (job loss, dea…

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