From my perspective, many American customs, values, and cultural expectations are weird. American attitudes towards charity are among those cultural quirks that have made me raise an eyebrow on plenty of occasions when I observed some odd behavior or attitude for the first time. Giving spare income to charity is probably the best thing a person can do with their extra money. But the customs about how people request help and assist those in need can be rather odd.
When I first heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge years ago, I was horrified. In case you don’t know the context, here is a definition from Wikipedia: The Ice Bucket Challenge was an activity involving the pouring of a bucket of ice water over a person’s head, either by another person or self-administered, to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as motor neuron disease and in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and encourage donations to research.
What the hell? What’s wrong with those Americans? Are they all sadomasochists? Personally, I am not a sadist. I do not get any enjoyment from watching videos of other people doing something unpleasant. I do not want to hire other people to film how they harm themselves in exchange for my money. Why? Just why is all that happening?
Same goes for all those other weird actions people do in order to collect donations. Running ultramarathons? Playing a boring video game for 48 hours in a row? Why? I understand that such actions attract media attention, which results in more donations, but the inherent pointlessness or even harm caused by such acts always bothered me. Moderate physical exercise is healthy, but forcing your body to its limits is bad for your long-term health. Playing a fun video game for moderate amounts of time is fine. But when a person plays a game they perceive as boring for prolonged periods of time, they are (1) wasting their time, (2) wasting electricity that results in pointless and avoidable greenhouse gas emissions, (3) harming their eyesight and body in general. Why should people be forced to do such harmful or pointless actions? When people have spare income, they shouldn’t donate it to whoever is willing to film how they harm their health in the most brutal way. Charity shouldn’t result in something that looks like a competition among sadomasochists.
The other cultural oddity that always puzzled me are people who claim that they are willing to donate to charity but who don’t want to pay taxes to finance state funded welfare programs.
In general, state is more efficient and less arbitrary compared to a network of countless charity organizations. In my opinion, those are very desirable qualities.
For example, charity organizations can easily collect donations for feeding malnourished people if said person is a cute and beautiful child who looks adorable in photos and videos. But what about an ugly and disfigured person who is just as hungry? They also should receive help. People in need shouldn’t be at the mercy of our aesthetic preferences.
In an affluent society nobody should experience hunger. No child should be denied access to healthcare or education just because their parents cannot afford doctor’s and university’s bills.
A child’s access to healthcare or food should not depend upon their parents’ marketing skills. Some parents are excellent video makers and know how to speak with the press. They can collect plenty of donations. Meanwhile, other parents have no such marketing skills.
States can establish some non-arbitrary guidelines that determine who qualifies for support. All people whose income is below some threshold receive help in obtaining food. All children who are diagnosed with some medical problem receive free treatment. The result is less arbitrary criteria for determining who receives support.
In addition, why should people with some “trendy” medical conditions receive help while others with more obscure or boring diseases are left to suffer on their own? Charity organizations work to raise awareness and collect money to treat patients with some disease du jour. So far so good. But it is unfair to ignore all those other patients who have less trendy medical problems about which nobody wants to raise awareness. Again, states can be better at ensuring that all people with serious medical problems receive help.
Of course, for the billionaires charity foundations are just tools for dodging taxes. That’s one reason why people love to donate to charities but hate taxes.
But there are more problems. Why do people donate money? A bit of selfishness is fine. A person can feel happy about having helped somebody else, they can feel better about themselves. Donating money because you simultaneously care about other people and also want to feel better about yourself is fine. A bit of bragging is also fine. If a person talks about some charity to which they recently donated money, that’s actually beneficial for collecting more donations.
But sometimes a desire for bragging rights can go too far. When billionaires dodge taxes just because tax money is used for building a library that cannot be called in their name (unlike a library to whom they donated voluntarily), then that’s problematic.
Then there’s also the desire to control how exactly your donated money gets utilized. To some extent, that’s reasonable. If you donate money with the expectation that it will be used to feed children from poor families, you don’t want the person who collects donations to buy a private jet instead.
Unfortunately, a desire for control can also go too far. I know that many donors want to determine how exactly their money gets used, but they should rein in this impulse. Often such desires stem from problematic attitudes that hide condescending compassion. As in, “I know better what those fools need.” A depressingly common sentiment can be summarized approximately like this: “If those people knew what they need, they wouldn’t be so poor. Only stupid people can live so miserably. Still, I am a good person, I feel pity for them, so I will give them what they need so that they can start living like decent human beings.”
In reality, most poor people are neither stupid nor lazy, and you, the person with spare income, often don’t know a thing about other people’s needs and their unique circumstances.
I once read a story about a charity that gave free cows to families in the developing world. It didn’t always work as expected—some recipients didn’t have proper food for these animals or they weren’t suited for the local climate etc. problems. Before deciding that a poor family living on the other side of the globe needs a cow the most, you would have to carefully evaluate their unique situation and consider every potential alternative, after all maybe they would get more bang for buck by buying some other things for the same amount of money. The reality is that it can be hard for outsiders to know what some people need the most. Of course, giving people money with no strings attached can also have drawbacks, but often that is the best option.
Food donations are an interesting example for analyzing these problematic mindsets. Families that live in poverty often get food bags or food stamps but not money. Donors (or states) tend to fear that parents would spend money on alcohol and fail to use it for children’s food. Meanwhile, the same states also have laws that criminalize child neglect. If some parents truly weren’t feeding their kids, then that would be a crime and would necessitate finding foster parents for said children. You either can trust some parents to properly feed their kids (and buy food for them) or you have to investigate said family for suspected child neglect. So where did we get the idea that poor families need food stamps and not money?
Speaking of food bags, poor people can have food allergies, celiac disease, diabetes etc. medical conditions that require them to avoid certain foods. Some people don’t want to eat certain foods for ethical or religious reasons. In addition, shouldn’t poor people be allowed to choose food that they like and perceive as tasty? And I’d say that parents from poor families should be allowed to buy their kid a birthday cake instead of always surviving on nothing but pasta.
Besides, there is no reason why poor people should be prevented from consuming a moderate amount of alcohol. If their alcohol consumption is unhealthy and excessive, they probably have a problem with addiction. Addicts would be better off with access to treatment, you aren’t helping them by preventing them from getting any cash.
I have also heard some people talking about how they don’t give money to street beggars fearing that they will buy alcohol/tobacco/drugs instead of food. Sitting on cold pavement for hours in freezing weather is already terrible. It’s horrifying that societies require some of their members to do these things just to obtain financial help. There is no need to pile extra misery upon these people so as to motivate them to “get a real job.” (Besides, such living conditions are already so bad that I would want any mind altering substance I can get in my hands if I were forced to live on the streets.)
I am not suggesting always giving poor people money and leaving it up to capitalism to fix everything. For example, in my part of the world real estate investors like to build huge houses and apartment buildings with large apartments that can only be bought or rented by wealthy people. Pretty much nobody wants to build houses with smaller and cheap apartments that could be affordable also for poorer families. Thus demand for cheap and smaller apartments exceeds the available supply of decades or even hundred years old houses. As for new apartments that could be affordable also for poorer tenants, well, those hardly exist. In such cases, states should fulfill needs that are ignored by the free market.
Sometimes charities (and states) can indeed do a great job with addressing specific problems that poor people have by giving them things that they need and lack. And it would make sense for a dentist to donate their free time rather than money by offering free dental care for people from poorer communities. Many ideas can indeed work and be very helpful at solving impoverished people’s problems. It’s just that donors should start with a bit of humility and accept that they don’t necessarily know better what the needs of other people are and they should also abstain from looking down on those people whom they are trying to help.
How to provide food to poor people without committing any blunders? Food boxes, warm meals, or food stamps/vouchers? Let’s look at some blunders. It can be educational.
In my country, people whose income is below a specified threshold all qualify for food boxes. One person, once every six weeks, receives:
Refined grain wheat pasta 1.5kg;
Refined grain wheat flour 0.4kg;
Semolina (refined grain wheat) 0.4kg;
White rice 0.4kg;
This constitutes 2.3kg of refined grain wheat, 2.7kg of refined grains, and 3.2kg of empty calories. (For my American readers—we usually don’t fortify or enrich foods here. Daily multivitamin pills aren’t common either.)
Rolled oats 0.4kg;
Here we have only 0.8kg of whole grains. Remember, whole grains are healthier and have much more vitamins and minerals.
Potato flakes 0.2kg;
Split peas 0.4kg;
Refined rapeseed oil 0.5 liters.
Another 1.1kg of plant foods. Peas at least have some protein.
Condensed milk with sugar 0.4kg;
Powdered milk 0.4kg;
Powdered eggs 0.1kg.
That’s 4 liters of reconstituted milk, and the equivalent of roughly 10 eggs (assuming I got conversions correctly).
Canned pork 0.5kg;
Canned beef 0.5kg.
And 1kg of meat.
Looking at lists like these, I see some problems. No vegetables or fruits. Little plant protein foods (legumes, seeds, nuts). But a proportionately huge amount of refined grains (largely empty calories). That’s not a healthy diet. In fact, I suspect that such diet could lead to nutrient deficiencies. Never mind that here we have only a few kilograms of food that is supposed to last for six weeks.
Back when I had to live on cheap food, getting enough empty calories was never a problem for me. After all, white rice and refined grain pasta is very cheap. Instead the bottleneck was getting enough protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins.
By the way, in Latvian grocery stores it is impossible to buy powdered eggs. Powdered milk cannot be bought most of the time but appears in stores during disasters. It briefly appeared for sale during the 2008 financial crisis, then it disappeared from stores only to reappear in spring of 2020 (COVID-19 crisis). Thus most people probably don’t even know how to cook something from powdered milk and powdered eggs.
Also, cooking. Does the poor person have a sufficiently equipped kitchen to prepare meals for their family? Do they know how to cook? Do they have time for cooking between their two jobs and taking care of children? Some poor people certainly do know how to cook and have kitchens with at least some cooking tools as well as a bit of spare time. But it depends on the person.
Warm meals, then? I know a person whose income was low enough that he qualified for a free daily warm meal. I tried said food. It was actually surprisingly good. Quite tasty and the ingredients were mostly healthy (vegetables, whole grains, a reasonable amount of protein foods). Unfortunately, there was a catch. In order to get the free food, he had to travel to a specific location within the city. It required spending three hours in public transport to get there and come back home. Also, did I mention that public transport tickets cost money? Needless to say that this person who qualified for these free meals didn’t use the opportunity and just bought food in his local grocery store and cooked for himself.
Food stamps/vouchers? Here’s the thing—I like being able to choose where I get my food. Like most people who have experienced poverty, I know exactly how much everything costs in each place that sells groceries (and I try to pick the cheapest store/market). In addition, my diet includes a significant amount of “specialty foods” (items that other people would call “cattle food” or “dog food” like wheat bran, pork legs, beef hearts, turkey necks, fish heads, Atlantic herrings, etc.) that are unavailable in the average grocery store. I also prefer to buy milk in a place where I can get it poured in my own reusable bottle. The primary reason for my “unusual” food choices is price. I know which ingredients are healthy yet cheap merely because other people don’t want to eat those things. If my ability to choose where I want to buy my food was artificially limited by some vouchers, I would end up spending more money on food.
Conclusion—people’s needs differ. Oh right, some also have allergies, celiac disease, diabetes, ethical objections against some foods like meat, religious food restrictions, and plain old taste preferences. Personally, I hate the taste of onions.
“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”
Wealthy people in the U.S. would rather set up “charities” then spend more in taxes, because everything going into the charity is tax-deductable, and they can often convince other people to fund their “charity”, and then they can do things like throw tax-deductable fancy parties (“fundraisers”), or give them selves pretty cushy jobs “managing” the “charity”, all the while spending very little money towards the problem their “charity” is supposed to solve. And when they do spend that meager amount of money, they get to spend it exactly as they want to, and can deny any people, group, or cause that they take a disliking to…
A lot of “charities” in the U.S. are just fancy three-card-monty/shell-games for the rich to further shuffle their wealth around, dodge taxes, gain some PR, and play nepotism.
I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but I feel like I’ve read summaries of studies showing some evidence that the best way to help poor/struggling people is to straight-up give them more money. People like to complain, and try and throw limitations and qualifications and such on it, but the best “evidence” I’ve seen them present is about poor/average people winning large lottery sums, and later going bankrupt, and I don’t think that’s at all comparable to giving a poor person a bit of extra money to cover rent AND utilities for the next month…
And I’m sure there are bits with “prosperity gospel” and “just world hypothesis” trash reasoning in there as well…
Regarding the ice bucket challenges, video game marathons, etc. — I’d say the key thing to bear in mind is just that humans are social animals. Our ideas of moral behavior tend to be hazy and ill-defined, which means we are hard to motivate as individuals but somewhat easier to motivate as groups. This also goes a long way to explain religion.
If you think that moral behavior is a real thing, in the sense that societies that encourage morality tend to thrive more than societies that don’t, then even if all belief in deities were to vanish overnight, it would still make sense to create some kind of church-like club whose members would encourage one another to act kindly and charitably toward their fellow humans. Presumably such a club built from scratch would do a better job at the task than most of the current churches that make this their supposed mission.