It’s been well over a year since I’ve felt inclined to give out a ’nuff said award to a commentator, but Mary’s reply to my post on charity, religion, and conservatism definitely qualifies as a comment which deserves its own blog post and needs no further comment from me:
The driving force behind what calls conservatives (religious or not) to critique government based welfare and wealth redistribution programs is the endless, insatiable, idolatrous need to consume. I think this is evident in many ways.
First, many of the most effective faith-based charitable organizations are partially government funded and the amount to which they are funded by the government changes according to how much their locality has in its ability to donate. My boyfriend is a campus minster in Ithaca, New York and he volunteers some time at the Catholic Worker which, in Ithaca and the surrounding region, provides basic necessities like deoderant, diapers, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper to literally thousands of people. It’s basic function is to provide the things which are not covered by standard foodstamps and welfare subsidies. They are funded partially by the diocese of Rochester which has little money, partially by the federal government, partially by the county and obviously private donations. The county agrees every year to match 1/2 of what the federal government pays. This year, the Catholic Worker in Ithaca lost $80,000 due to conservative push to stop having the government fund charities. And the Catholic Worker isn’t the only religiously-based charitable organization or otherwise private charitable organization to suffer such cut backs. If a private charity organization is going to function at all in a way that respects human dignity it cannot, for instance, deny service to certain individuals. It cannot draw arbitrary geographical lines of outreach but should, instead, attempt to reach as geographically far with its services as possible. This requires workers, volunteers, transportation, bills to pay etc. Only the luckiest or greediest of private charitable organizations could survive purely on their private donations. The most effective private charities have government aid.
So conservatives claim to come from a religiously-based point of view in regard to government charity and welfare, but they cut off the life blood to the very organizations they believe should be the arbiter of charity.
Hiding behind the “religious charities do a better job” mask is just a way of putting the issue out of sight and out of mind. The vast majority of the people who say that have no intention of donating any money or time to those charities and they don’t care if they are effective or not. Some religious-based charities (but not all) are exactly as you said – closed-minded and proselytizing and do good only if people agree to listen to Bible readings or participate in services (as just a few examples).
Second, the claim that government based welfare contributes to the lack of meaningful human interaction involved in charity is just a nice way of saying, “if people are given an opportunity to have a fair shot in a largely capitalist system and are not plunged into desperate poverty because of my tax dollars” then those people cannot know that they are subjected to the charitable whim of the wealthy. Redistributing wealth removes a person’s ability to consume the things necessary to show outward displays of wealth which in turn show to the lucky poor person they decide to be charitable to how much richer than rich person is than the poor person. Conceivably, without anyone over whom to lord wealth, there would be no reason to mindlessly consume and so government-based welfare and wealth redistribution systems threaten what people love the most about consuming – the outward effect it has on one’s status.
Charitable giving can be the most impersonal system of all. I went on GO! West while I was at Fordham and we went to a place in Alamosa, Colorado called La Puente which I believe began as a religious organization but is no longer religious. It operates a homeless shelter/soup kitchen, a thrift shop whose proceeds benefit the homeless, a place where people can buy food and other necessities at an extremely discounted price, a coffee shop whose profits benefit the charity and which has free access to the internet for the large majority of the people in the town who have no internet. From what I could see, it was one of the most dignified ways to do charity I’d ever seen and their services were invaluable to the hundreds of migrant workers who came through the town and the people who lived on the outskirts of the valley with literally no access to resources. The daily meals at the homeless shelter were open to the public and no one was denied a meal. Even if the week before you had tried to strangle a volunteer, you would still be given a meal to take with you. As for the charitable distribution of food and necessities, families were given points based on how many children they had etc. and they could actually go to shop in the store. They had a cart and choices and it was like real shopping. The people who lived in the valley, unfortunately, had to receive boxes with supplies because they could not reach town. Everything about the way La Puenta runs itself is aimed at allowing the people they serve to be on the same level as the people who contribute to the service and allowing them to feel as if they have a choice. But we both know and I’m sure everyone who is involved knows – they don’t really have a choice. They are still dirt poor and they are still living off of the kindness and generosity of the people who give private donations to the organization. It is extremely impersonal because it necessarily subjugates the person receiving charity. The people who donate the “personal charity money” are not the people who work there or volunteer there. The organization tries to get people jobs and things like that, but it can’t single handedly fix a broken system that makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. If you asked any of the volunteers at La Puenta if they would rather the government operate in such a way that the people in Alamosa didn’t need their services, they would say “yes.” It is the same as many more liberally minded private or religious charitable organizations which is why so many of them campaign for better government aid.
Charity is dehumanizing – at least being the recipient of it is, especially if you are repeatedly the recipient of charity. Small instances of help in a time of extreme need are appreciated, but in the long-term it ruins the spirit of the person who received it. When my parents were first married they were extremely poor and my mom always talks fondly about how people would help them with things, sometimes family and sometimes total strangers, so that their life could be a little more comfortable. But my parents weren’t from the poor class – though they may have been poor at the time – and with better means of employment they no longer need to receive charity. Those instances of charity were personal and meaningful but imagine if they had to raise all four of their children purely on the kindness of strangers. I think their attitude would be different.
Conservatives want a more impersonal system. One that places the poor in shelters and not on street corners and keeps them where they belong – at the bottom. Anyone who tries to question this system is a communist as we learned from the violent and often fatal struggle of many religious and non-religious organizations who worked in Latin American in the 80s and 90s.
Even if, like me, you have no a priori objection to religious institutions doing charitable work in society, you should still see how charity should really be the last resort. We should prefer a system that calls for no charity and with the wealth that flows through private individuals in this country, it should be no major threat to personal comfort if the tax system better benefited the poor. But that limits the extent to which we can extravagantly spend and it closes the gap between rich and poor which, frankly, makes the rich seem not quite as interesting.
I am always skeptical of a conservative who talks about how charity should be with private or religious organizations. If they ever spent any time at those organizations they would know that many of the people who work in them (at least work in the less conservative organizations) would support the wealth redistribution program they despise.