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Robbing Peter to Give Charity to Paul

Just about every year at this time we’re invited, even hectored, to participate in the “season of giving” and to “remember the less fortunate.” In pre-Covid days we would see Salvation Army Santas ringing those bells as dollars rained down into their buckets. And we Americans do give generously. We do see the desperation of the hungry and homeless and open our wallets accordingly.

This is all to the good. I’m not here to disparage compassion. Not when 26 million adults report living in households where there’s often not enough food—and not when more than one in six U.S. households with young children report experiencing hunger on a regular basis.

But there’s a problem. We now live in a society engulfed in what Chuck Collins, an heir to wealth himself and an astute critic of winner-take-all economics, calls an “oligarchic death spiral.” Among other things, this means that private charity can’t begin to keep up with what we might call manufactured suffering: the downward push on wages and public benefits even as the richest among us vacuum up ever more obscene wealth. Collins notes that the wealth of U.S. billionaires has ballooned by a full third during the Covid pandemic, even as 20 million people lost their jobs and more than half of these now face the end of emergency assistance.

It’s important to understand that engineered inequality did not begin with this pandemic. Long before Covid struck, the real wealth of the lower 50% of American households had fallen by $900 billion over the course of 30 years, while the aggregate wealth of the top 1% of households soared by $21 trillion during these same decades.

Neoliberal defenders of the prevailing system, themselves among this system’s winners, will always insist that the explosion of wealth at the top and the spread of severe privation at the bottom are unrelated.

This has happened so swiftly and subtly and with so little serious reporting that middle class people actually have no idea “how the other half lives” these days. Many would be shocked to learn that the median wage of the bottom 44% of U.S. workers was just $18,000 a year before the impact of Covid. Try feeding and housing your family on that. And stop pretending that because it might be easier to make do in Paducah than in Palo Alto, it’s therefore fine and “efficient” to permit such a low wage floor.

Neoliberal defenders of the prevailing system, themselves among this system’s winners, will always insist that the explosion of wealth at the top and the spread of severe privation at the bottom are unrelated. Methinks it takes relatively little analytic capacity to see how they are in fact intimately related.

Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, and a long dishonor roll of leading U.S. companies make a big chunk of their money in the same vicious way: by grinding their workers, finding ways to keep them from earning a livable wage or ever gaining job-related benefits while shifting to the backs of taxpayers the cost of paying for the subsistence-level food and health care needed by their underpaid helots. All the while, of course, paying less and less in taxes themselves. Quite the win-win for them, you might say.

The U.S. stands alone among industrialized democracies in the degree to which the fruits of productivity gains flow upward and aren’t shared with workers. New technologies for workplace control—the omni-present apps—greatly favor the rich and powerful in their never-ending quest for more. As the accelerating growth of just-in-time scheduling continues to pile mountains of wealth into the hands of corporate shareholders and senior executives, this “forced flexing” phenomenon threatens not just the income stability but also the mental health and family life of tens of millions of working people. Needless to say, the corrosive impacts of constantly changing work schedules hit the lowest-paid workers and workers of color the hardest.

I could go on in this vein. But is it not glaringly obvious that private giving and personal volunteer work will never catch up with the effects of the systemic injustice that gets to masquerade as normal corporate operating procedure in this country?

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Adding to the level of stink in God’s nostrils, our wealthy exploiters tend to rely heavily on charity—their own, and that of everyday people—both to conceal the evidence of their crimes and to feel good about themselves. Really proud of themselves, in fact.

Peter Buffett (son of Warren and thus no stranger to the ways of the wealthy) nailed this vanity factor in the explosive Times op-ed he published way back in 2013:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering”—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Those of us who are not rich and not given to excessive self-flattery must rethink what we mean by generosity in an oligarchic era. We can begin by disregarding meaningless reports purporting to tell us which states have the most generous people. For example, this one from WalletHub declaring that the residents of Utah are the most generous by several measures—while barely mentioning that by far the biggest charitable organization in Utah is the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church), which mandates both tithing and robust volunteer activity from all adherents.

Ludicrous to treat such “who is most charitable?” ratings as a meaningful measure of anything.

If we really want to measure generosity, let’s not look at private charity. Let’s look instead at comparative levels of public support for policies that might actually make a substantive difference: higher minimum incomes, obviously, but also education and health equity so that children’s chances in life no longer depend on their ZIP codes, universal child care support for working families, and the progressive taxation needed to pay for all of it.

Truly generous people will demand social systems in which all can flourish. Utah, are you listening?

More than 50 years ago, MLK dismissed the idea that private charity can ever substitute for public justice. Dr. King said that when we Americans finally get our values right we will still need to play the role of the Good Samaritan but we will also come to understand that “the whole Jericho Road must be transformed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

In the decades since King first called for a transformation of values, the American “edifice” that generates mass suffering has only grown vastly more powerful. And here we are, still flinging those coins and still ignoring the restructuring imperative.

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God help us all if we choose to stay on this road. And for the Christians in the room: Jesus asked us to care for the sheep; He also warned us about wolves who devour.

Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches