Charity: A Consideration of Responsibility
Every day, at least everyday the physical mail arrives, our household receives as many as a half dozen (and at times more) mail solicitations from charitable organizations. A similar stream of requests comes to us via Email.
While some might consider this a nuisance, or a waste, or even harassment, by the charities, I decidedly do not. I consider the inflow reasonable, and the charities’ efforts to solicit as legitimate, and the imposition on me not a nuisance, but to the contrary a challenge. Not a challenge in a sense of how to handle or dispose of the mail, or how to stem the flow, but a challenge as to how to respond in an ethically responsible and appropriate manner.
So, given a decision to not dismiss, or throw out, or simply ignore the incoming wave, what is the proper action? Should I give, and how much? Now our household, as might be considered typical, earns sufficient income to cover necessities and some amenities, but we are not living in large luxury. We own standard brand (Chevy, Pontiac) cars, live in a modest single family home, consider Saturday evening at the local pizza parlor as eating out, and turn down the heat to keep the utility bills affordable.
Contributing thus falls within our means, but not without trade-offs, and even sacrifice.
So should we support orphans? And how much? Let’s consider (and dismiss) some initial concerns, concerns which could otherwise deflect, diminish or even remove an obligation to donate.
The Legitimacy and Efficiency of Charities – Stories surface, more often than desirable, highlighting unscrupulous individuals who prey on sympathy and use sham charity websites to collect contributions but then keep the donations. Other stories uncover less than competent actions by charities, for example excessive salaries, inappropriate marketing costs, lack of oversight. With this, then, why give?
While striking, these stories, as I scan the situation, represent outliers. The stories rate as news due to the very fact that they represent the atypical. Do I believe mainline charities, like Salvation Army, or Catholic Charities, or Doctors without Borders, do I believe them so inefficient or corrupt to justify my not giving? No. Rather, the response, if I and anyone have concerns about a charity, is to research the charity, to check and find those that are worthy, and not to simply cast one’s obligation aside.
Government and Business Role – Some may argue that government (by its programs), or business (through its contributions and community service), should handle charity needs and issues. Government and business have resources beyond any that I or any one individual can garner.
My look again says I can not use this argument to side step my involvement. Government needs taxes, plus political consensus, both uncertain, to run social and charity programs, and businesses simply are not sufficiently in the business of charity to expect them to carry the whole weight.
Deserving of our Amenities – Most individuals with a modest but comfortable status achieved that through sacrifice, and scholastic effort, and hard work, and daily discipline. We thus should not, and do not need to, feel guilt as we reasonably reward ourselves, and our households, with amenities. And the term amenities doesn’t imply decadence Amenities often include positive and admirable items, i.e. instructional summer camps, travel to educational places, purchase of healthy food, a family outing at an afternoon baseball game.
However, while we earned our amenities, in a broader sense we did not earn our stature at birth. Most financially sufficient individuals and families likely have had the good fortune to be born into an economically productive setting, with the opportunity for education, and the freedom to pursue and find employment and advancement.
If we have that good fortune, if we were born into free, safe and relatively prosperous conditions, few of us would change our stature at birth to have been born in the dictatorship of North Korea, or a slum in India, or a war-ravaged city in the Middle East, or doctorless village in Africa, or a decaying municipality in Siberia, or, since the Western world isn’t perfect, an impoverished neighborhood in the U.S., or a cold, wind-swept nomadic steppe in South America. Certainly much of any success comes from our own efforts. But much of it also comes from the luck of the draw on the stature into which we were born.
Economic Dislocation – Isn’t giving a zero sum game? Diverting spending from luxury items (e.g. designer sunglasses, drinks at a fine lounge), or even making sacrifices (fasting a meal), to give to charity, creates economic ripples. As we convert spending to charities, we reduce spending, and incrementally employment, in companies and firms providing the items forgone. And the ripples don’t affect just the wealthy. The employment ripples impact what might be considered deserving individuals, e.g. students paying their way through college, pensioners depending on dividends, inner city youth working hard, average income individuals providing for families.
However, in reality, for good or bad, every purchasing decision, not just those involving charity donations, creates employment ripples, creates winners and losers. A trip to the ball game verses a trip to the theme park, a purchase at a local deli verses a purchase at a large grocery, clothes made in Malaysia verses clothes made in Vietnam – every purchasing decision implicitly decides a winner and a loser, generates employment for some and reduces it for others.
So this issue, of purchasing decisions shifting employment patterns, this issue extends over the whole economy. How can it be handled? In an overarching way, government and social structures must create fluidity and freedom in employment so individuals can move (relatively) smoothly between firms, locations and sectors. This public policy issue, of dislocation of employment due to economic shifts, looms large, but in the end, should not, and more critically, can not, be solved by failing to donate.