Charity and Justice

A few weeks ago my daughter got a bee in her bonnet about wanting to help homeless people. Like many of her peers she has begun to notice the world outside of herself and has run into panhandlers on the street, outside the Co-op, at highway exit ramps.

She had no interest in giving to shelters, or buying toys for toy drives. It had to be directly to the very people she saw on the street.

I figured it was good idea to let her run with her motivation, and allowed her to empty her allowance, not just the line she sets aside for “giving” but also her own personal savings, into planning and purchasing and putting together care packages—water bottles, food, a bus card, socks, etc.

I was glad to see her being spontaneously generous, caring for the people around her, moved by their condition.

But I struggled with how and when to complicate the simple notion of charity and bring it toward justice. Sarah Kendizor, writing recently for Al-Jazeera English, put it so well: “Charity, as a supplement to justice, should be applauded. But charity as a substitute for justice is neither charity nor justice. It is cruelty.” She added, “Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society.”

I don’t want my kids to get suckered by a politics that allows the collective public to give up our responsibility to ensure a decent and just society with a safety net and puts it on the shoulders of whichever individuals happen to be nearby, onto the whims and patronizing back-patting of charity.

Of course my 8-year-old daughter is not being capricious in a negative way, nor patronizing. She’s just trying to figure out how to affect the world around her, how to act out of compassion, how to wrestle with the close up reality that our society lets some people fall through the cracks. I do believe you need to do both.

I did talk to her about the United for Homes campaign to turn the Mortgage Interest Deduction into a refundable credit and lower the mortgage amount you can take it on, simultaneously helping lower income (and middle class) homeowners and generating a savings that, if redirected to the National Housing Trust Fund, could actually end homelessness by producing enough truly affordable rental and supportive housing. She was hard put to get excited about even the simplified explanation I gave her, but the phrase “end homelessness” caught her attention and she said once she had spent a few months giving out care packages she would kick that campaign some cash. I think that’s probably the best I can do for now.

I also struggle with ensuring that she maintains a decent sense of self preservation. Women, particularly, are so often raised with a focus on caring for others to the detriment of themselves. I want to raise kids who are kind and generous and full of solidarity, but I also don’t want to send the message that they should become martyrs. I hesitated to tell her about the time shortly after college that I was mugged on my walk home from work by someone who had approached me asking for money the day before. But I did, in very broad terms, because I know the willingness I learned from that to say no abruptly whenever someone acted the slightest bit aggressive or threatening has served me well and always needs sharpening.

I want to explain to her about the drowning people who can pull you under when you try to help them, but her patience for my allegories is already waning.

So I figure this is one of those times when I need to pull back from the lectures a little and focus on keeping for myself the balances I want her to be able to strike. If it’s a lifelong process for the rest of us, it’s going to be for our kids too.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Dec. 31, 2014.)

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