The problem with charity

17 Oct

OK, now hold your horses. I’m not going to argue that charity is bad, and we should stop all acts of it.

The problem with charity, as I see it, is that it’s confused with social justice. Charity, giving to those in need right now, is necessary and humane. But it is not transformation. It is not changing the systems and structures that are in no small part the reason why people end up in dire straits. I’m not talking about controlling earthquakes. I’m talking about fixing the economic and political systems that, by fomenting and sustaining poverty, instability and lack of national infrastructure, amplify and prolong the devastation of Haiti after an earthquake has struck. We can donate plane loads of food and medical supplies–and it’s critical that we do. But charity alone won’t fix an issue that disaster only exacerbates.

I hear this conflation of charity and some greater social change in the talk about Mitt Romney’s huge charitable donations. Paul Ryan righteously cited Romney’s generosity during the Vice Presidential debate to make the point that Romney is “a good man.” (See my 5/8/12 post on Jay Smooth’s “How to Tell People They Sound Racist,” including his discussion of the red herring “good person” argument that is an attempt to absolve said “good people” for all the harmful things they can and still do.)

Setting aside the question of Romney’s innate goodness, what are his acts of charity supposed to tell us about him as a leader?

If President Lincoln had donated lots of clothing and food to slaves, that would have made him a “good man” in the eyes of many. But what made him a leader of all (not just some) was ending slavery. While making slavery less hideous for enslaved people was vital, we needed to stop it, not just make it more bearable. So when I read about Romney giving away more in charitable donations than most people make in a year, I am thankful for the immediate relief he provides and troubled that he (and therefore his potential administration) may think this is social action. I don’t want a White House that just helps people continue to struggle and subsist on the edge of collapse; I want a White House that innovates access to resources and helps folks create stronger, more robust communities.

I could go on. And I will tomorrow…

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