Is Charity a Moral Failure?

I read a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday titled “Kindness of a Stranger that Still Resonates.” The article described the kind and selfless acts of a successful businessman in the depths of the Great Depression during an era where charity was seen as a moral failure.

The secret philanthropist, Samuel J. Stone, published an ad under a pseudonym (“B.Virdot”) offering to give assistance to those who wrote him a letter describing their need and how they planned to use the money. He promised anonymity as the idea of accepting help in those days was much less morally acceptable than it is in our common era. A kind gesture, to be sure, and one that points to the power of people helping people.

I wonder what would happen if people in need were more industrious on the one hand and if those with means beyond their need were more generous on the other? Would the massive and costly governmental systems that mediate by way of tax dollars become obsolete?

A friend of mine who spent time in Puerto Rico told me that many of her conversations with locals said that they felt that the American welfare system was at the root of many of the problems in their country. Laziness, graffiti, unclean streets and neighborhoods were apparently less prominent prior to the implementation of welfare as the lack of a safety net served as incentive to get out there and work. Was this the only factor involved? I doubt it, but it does strike me as more than a coincidence.

The article went on to describe the current situation in Canton, Ohio, the town in which the article was published some 77 years ago:

Many people need such help in Canton. More than half the city’s children live below the federal poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, up from 38 percent in 2008. More than 3,000 people called the United Way for help in October, a 33 percent increase over last year, the agency said.

The US Census Bureau publishes a number of statistics on poverty in the United States. Here are just a few:

  • In 2009, the family poverty rate and the number of families in poverty were 11.1 percent and 8.8 million, respectively, up from 10.3 percent and 8.1 million in 2008.
  • The poverty rate and the number in poverty increased across all types of families: married-couple families (5.8 percent and 3.4 million in 2009 from 5.5 percent and 3.3 million in 2008); female-householder-with-no-husband-present families (29.9 percent and 4.4 million in 2009 from 28.7 percent and 4.2 million in 2008) and for male-householder-no-wife-present families (16.9 percent and 942,000 in 2009 from 13.8 percent and 723,000 in 2008).
  • The poverty rate increased for children younger than 18 (from 19.0 percent in 2008 to 20.7 percent in 2009) and people 18 to 64 (from 11.7 percent in 2008 to 12.9 percent in 2009)

Is our present approach working? Relatively speaking, maybe, but in absolute terms, absolutely not! It’s easy to look the other way but sooner or later ignoring the problem only makes things worse. Far too many responsibilities that could be handled by caring, conscientious and wise individuals are passed on to the government and it seems to me that more often than not the solution to government becoming too big is for individuals to step up to the plate, as a whole.

If it is true that the sum of the part is greater than the whole, then the parts, when playing their part fully, actively and passionately, should be more effective at solving the systemic problems we face as a society, as a nation and as a world.

10 thoughts on “Is Charity a Moral Failure?

  1. Very interesting indeed. I also wonder if the types of jobs available today make a difference. During The Great Depression most jobs or a lot of them would have required much less skill than the ones of today. So there would have been more of jobs that were easier for just about anyone. Also people wouldn’t have had to travel as far to get them. Less factory/manufacturing type jobs now. Less household help, handymen etc. Things are just so different. Maybe that plays a large role in matters.


  2. Nic Kolya

    Great points – I really feel that the entire world could change if people were not only willing to step up to the plate and take responsibility for themselves, but to also make it a priority to work together to help others.


  3. Lady Leo

    From the age of 18 months or so most children announce regularly and forcefully ” I do it myself”. It appears pride in being able to do for oneself either is inherent or starts young. When we support people out of shame or pity instead of teaching that empowers; we deny that experience of being one of the “Parts”.
    There are those who can’t completely take care of themselves and we have a responsibility to them but that is another subject. I am speaking of the people who from my experience at some point wanted to contribute to their own care but then they see the system is all or nothing. There is little to no room for assisting those who are learning and acquiring the skills needed to participate as a contributor. Sometimes people just need a “leg up” not a heart lung machine forever.
    Our system seems to reward those who have given up or due to the rules by which assistance is doled out, have been forced to give up.
    I have read articles about families that have a member that needs total physical care due to an accident etc. but because of the way financial assistance is structured they are forced to put them in a expensive care facility because the state will pay for someone else to care for them but not the family member or they just need an aid once a day, but again, all or nothing.
    Yes there is no quick answer and there would have to be checks and balances but aren’t we the same country that put a man on the moon?
    Running this county more like a business instead of a group of separate unrelated interest groups would be a good beginning. Seeing us as “One nation…” is a start. How do children react when they are denied the opportunity to do it themselves …anger and frustration! And I see the same from adults.
    Great post Gregg, thanks.


  4. Colin

    I think both of these things would be helpful. If people were more willing to work, and if there was more charitable giving. I think the part we’ve been missing is the willingness to work, or the incentive to work. There is lots of opportunity still in our society, but some of our programs to help the poor can passively encourage people not to work. You can be more discerning with private charitable giving. It doesn’t become so institutionalized. I think you’re on to something here!


  5. Brad

    You bring up some very compelling points here –
    It appears that poverty numbers increase as the government “provides” more – do you think people develop a mindset of apathy and then entitlement? – do you think this mindset is then sociologically taught, starting at a young age?? It makes me think more about what and how I am teaching my children… the belief system I empower them with –
    This seems like a massive project …what steps do you propose we take to turn this around?


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