The problems with charity


Ultimately, I think the system of charity, which is hard enough to engage in as it is, is all wrong.

The system as it stands right now is: those who have more choose to give to those who have less. Sounds altruistic and unassailable, right?

There are two problems that spring to mind: being optional and being arbitrary.

Giving is optional

The church states that members should give 10% (a “tithe”) to the church. Whether or not people do this is unknown but I suspect that the giving isn’t universal.

But what about all those people who are in need and aren’t a church? What’s our quota for those people? There isn’t one. In short, there are no guidelines or expectations that we give to anyone in particular at any time. All that we do is self-prescribed.

When something is optional, we’re less likely to do it. This doesn’t seem to require much elaboration. If you were required to go to the gym (as, say, a condition of employment, or some other non-negotiable) you bet you’d go more often.

We also tend to require some kind of external accountability when doing things that we don’t naturally want to do. This is why mastermind groups are so useful, and sites like StickK are so compelling (which charts your goals and donates money to organizations you hate if you fall short).

I don’t know the larger ramifications of making giving mandatory, nor do I know how it would even be determined or enforced. But it certainly would have a larger effect than it does right now.

Giving is arbitrary

There are organizations I believe in and support. My favored organizations are likely not yours.

While this is okay (we don’t need to agree on these things), it does mean that the process of giving is open to favoritism, and leaving holes where important needs are being unmet due to lack of visibility. After all, you can’t give to an organization that you haven’t heard of.

It also means the burden of work is on the donor to make the decision on where the donation goes. And while this is authentic, in that it allows me to decide where my own money goes to be sure that it matches my values, in practice it puts another barrier to giving: the need for research.

Also, it seems understandable to donate to a cause that personally affects you or someone close to you, but that can sometimes overshadow the importance of organizations where you have no personal connection. For example, one may not be moved to support the Nature Conservancy over, say, a breast cancer research foundation, especially when you know someone who has been affected. But that skews the donations based on emotions, and rather overlooks the fact that without our environment being preserved for widespread habitation, breast cancer is a bit beside the point.

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Is there a better way?

The problem is that charitable donations, especially when they directly help those in need, are not optional in our society. Many people rely on the largesse of those more fortunate to survive.

And I think it’s ultimately this that is wrong. That we can live in a system where someone can work a full time job and yet not make a living wage is wrong. That we can equate economic misery with a moral failing (“you’re just not trying hard enough“) is wrong. That we believe that those people who are not able to keep their head above water don’t affect us and our society is wrong.

Ultimately, though I don’t see anything wrong with certain lucky/fortunate folks being able to reap the amazing rewards of a successful life, I feel that we should be striving to minimize the number of people who are falling behind.

How we do this is a matter of debate. (Minimum wage changes? Taxation changes? Better educational opportunities? Better access to health care? I don’t know, but something with the goal of making it impossible for someone who is working a full-time job to not maintain a living wage, for starters.) But the debate is not whether we need to change how we help those in need, but rather how. They way we’re doing things now is not sufficient.

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