Charity vs. Justice
March 18, 2017
When conservatives say they want to dismantle the state, or drown the federal government in a bathtub, or get big government off their backs, liberals/progressives respond by listing all the important functions government fills with regard to the public good, especially in relation to the poor and various social services. The typical comeback by conservatives is that these functions (Medicare, Social Security, WIC, food banks, education, unemployment services, etc.) can be performed better, and for less money, by charities or non-profits, particularly those related to churches.
As is evident in the recent Rolling Stone article on Betsy DeVos, apparently a nearly utopian vision of this kind of society exists in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Courtesy of the DeVos family, Grand Rapids holds forth an extensive network of church-based charitable institutions. Apparently they do a fine job of delivering services. So far, so good.
But note this excerpt from the piece:
The[re] are…systemic issues that Grand Rapids’ culture of charity fails to address. “We have a saying in West Michigan,” Jeff Smith, a community organizer, jokes: “Grand Rapids does charity really well, we just don’t do justice for shit.” Smith runs the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, a watchdog organization for people whose interests have largely been suppressed, he believes, by the local Dutch power brokers. “The philanthropic community here has their tentacles in so many places,” says Smith. “They’ll offer some form of safety net, but they do it primarily through mechanisms that are faith-based, so it’s an opportunity to evangelize.”
The negative results of this kind of setup, then, are twofold: First, all charitable deliveries will come with some Jesus talk. Second, charity can never address the fundamental inequalities that created the need for giving. Charity is not inclined to look for the deeper problems.
In other words, enabling powerful charities means that the possibility for discrimination in giving is probable, and that you probably perpetuate the injustices that require charitable handouts. So do conservatives care about enabling people to have jobs and livelihoods, or just the kind of hand (i.e. Christian) that delivers the goods to the poor? Or is it just about being in control—about having personal power over the lives of others?
In any case, this false creation of charitable opportunities simply perpetuates injustice. The solution is to diminish economic inequality by redistribution so that idiosyncratic standards do not decide who is worthy of goods, especially when those goods might be the difference between life and death for some families. – TL
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