Charity and Stigma
I think that there should be a mild, limited, almost unspoken social stigma against able-bodied adult charity recipients. Usually there is, but often it comes with a lot of needless baggage.
First, it should make no difference whether that charity is publicly or privately provided. If you are able to work, and if you take charity instead of working, a limited but very real amount of shame should fall on you.
Shame? Yes, shame. There are worse things in the world than shame. Get over it.
I am aware that macroeconomic factors can make it impossible to find work. These days, that happens pretty often. I know. That’s why the stigma should be mild, and why in real life — and politics notwithstanding — individual exceptions should sometimes be made.
I am not concern trolling when I say this. I do not worry, or mock-worry, or urge others to worry, that we are failing in our duties here. If anything, the disapproval that now exists may even be too strong. (Read that sentence again, it’s among the most important.) I am simply trying to articulate a typically unstated norm that I think we all share, for the sake of future clear thinking.
Much of the stigma as lately deployed in the political realm seems grossly disproportionate and mistargeted. It centers on the recipients of public welfare, whereas it ought to work more or less equally in both the public and private spheres. In both, it keeps charity temporary where possible, which is just what we want it to be.
The stigma is also misplaced whenever it targets the recipients of public welfare who have paid into the public welfare system, often for much of their lives, and who did so on the promise that they were in a fashion saving their own money, albeit in a roundabout, inefficient, low-return, decidedly non-voluntary way. That is, it targets them merely for trying to get out of the system something like what they of necessity put in. People who try to get out of a savings account something like what they put in are not being moochers. They’re being thrifty.
Its political misuses aside, I find it difficult to believe that our society could function for very long without something a lot like the stigma I have in mind. Everywhere but politics it appears currently to be functioning more or less as it ought. If welfare and work are ever seen as equally valid choices by significant numbers of people, or if work is frowned upon, things will utterly fall apart almost overnight. I mean a lot worse than 2008. That hasn’t happened yet, which is obviously a good thing.
We should also not forget the other side of this grim little ledger sheet: There is a tremendous, awesome, community-building pride in the story of someone who starts by receiving welfare, and who finds work, and who gives back to the institution that helped him out of whatever difficulties he had. We ought to love rags-to-riches stories. Probably a lot more than we do. We tend to sneer about them nowadays, which I find worrying. (If I’m concern trolling anywhere, it’s here, and I’ll admit to it if you press me.)
The metaphor of the ledger is actually all wrong, come to think of it, because being a part of this story — I mean the giving-back-after part — makes you in many ways a more valuable citizen and a more valuable provider of help: The balance isn’t zero. It’s positive. Done right, charity should build community. (A libertarian would point out that tax-funded welfare makes this process more difficult, but I’m not wearing my libertarian hat right now.)
I do not think that there should be any social stigma attached to being a member of the working poor. On the contrary, I think that people who are poor but who nonetheless work… are praiseworthy. Disdain for the working poor is a problem of our elite political class, and I think it exists in all political corners.
It is remarkable to me that when Charles Murray said in Coming Apart that his wealthy, elite friends should spend more time building communal bonds with the working poor, the press almost immediately perverted his his otherwise quite clear message into “What’s wrong with these damn poor people?” When his real message was — “What’s wrong with these damn rich people?”
Which message, if anything, the left ought to be able to grasp. The moral obligations of said rich people being, ultimately, aimed at helping others to help themselves. That isn’t all that original, and there are all sorts of ways it could play out, up to and including the redeployment of rich people’s — let’s be frank about it — enhanced political power for purposes of good. But also private charity, with implied obligations once the recipient has climbed a few rungs on the social ladder, which he should do as promptly as sound ethics permits. (Is community organizing only thinkable, or praiseworthy, if it’s through, or aimed at, the state? But I touch on a tender subject as of just lately.)
Anyway. Done properly, and kept far from the insanity of politics, there are worse things in the world than the prospect of a modicum of shame, particularly when it comes with a chance at total redemption.