Charity no substitute for action on inequality
OPINION:Charity is a gift, and those living on it have no rights to the services or goods offered that can be vindicated by law
Now that Christmas is coming, there will be the annual debates about “the poor” and “the homeless”; we will be exhorted to engage in charitable acts for the needy.
Given that the poorest 10 per cent of Irish households experienced a drop of 26 per cent in their disposable income between 2009 and 2010, and the wealthiest 10 per cent had an increase of 8 per cent (according to the EU Silc – Survey on Income and Living Conditions – study), and that economic inequality is growing visibly with each budget, such calls may seem highly morally commendable.
However, charity is not justice; it is neither a robust nor an effective response to economic inequality. In fact, charity perpetuates inequality and legitimates it, creating in the process a truly careless state.
Charity is an entirely voluntary act; it can be given and it can be taken away. It is a personal choice, not a collectively binding agreement of solidarity. At the individual level, it is driven by the desire for moral recognition on the part of those who give rather than recognition of the rights of those who receive. It can and does service the guilt of the better-off, rather than the needs of the vulnerable to live with dignity and independence.
Moreover, charity also leads to the moral judgment of those in receipt of it, a framing of the recipients as deserving or undeserving.
It is politically dangerous in this respect as it creates the public impression that those offering charity (those doing their “good deeds”) are morally superior to the needy as they are working out of virtue. Because charity is a gift offered by those who decide to give, on the terms which they decide to provide it, those living on charity have no rights to the services or goods offered that can be vindicated by law.
Being in receipt of charity is thereby demeaning; it has to be sought through supplication (effectively by begging – not all begging is with a cap in hand on the street). And this means those seeking charity are subject to scrutiny on the terms defined by the givers who exercise power over them.
It is premised on the institutionalisation of unequal and unjust economic relationships. Only in such a structurally unequal system can those with resources be in a position to offer charity to others.
Responding to inequality by acts of charity will not and cannot challenge the generative causes of injustice. To say this is not to deny the valuable work done by charities. Many charities speak out and some campaign on structural injustices; but even these operate under the restriction of the Charities Act, 2009, which states that . . . they cannot promote “a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body”.
This means that structural inequalities are secondary considerations in most charitable work, and this reinforces and exacerbates injustice. It gives the false impression something is being done politically to address the deeply demeaning reality of living in poverty or without a home. Why do we respond so often (and so generously at the individual level, at times) to economic inequalities by offering charity even though it is ineffectual?
Why do we not institutionalise systems of taxation for distributing wealth in a progressive and egalitarian way so that those who are most vulnerable have equal access to good health services, education, housing and transport comparable to others?