Friday, January 11, 2013

A Jaded Sense of Charity

We have passed the Christmas season now that the twelfth day of Epiphany is done, a season known generically as 'the Holidays' so as not to offend the sensibilities of those looking for offense.  Rather than 'Merry Christmas' we are encouraged to use the correspondingly bland 'Season's Greetings', as if our festive spirit is dedicated to a celebration of weather.  (Don't mistake my meaning.  Christmas is a favourite time of year for me, but for the old reasons.)


We are often reminded that it is also known as the 'Season of Giving', with a commercial fervor that would be a discouragement to even Mother Teresa.  The Christmas season actually begins with Advent but the older generation will tell you that it starts with Thanksgiving.  The younger ones, though, are programmed to have it pegged to Black Friday. 

But it isn’t only the mercantile guild who exhorts our generosity.  There is also the legion of the self-employed beggars who ply a trade that can be as diligent in its skills as any other marketing profession.  Like other professionals, they have their apprentices, journeymen, and masters, and they have their seasons as well.  Good weather draws out the intersection contingents – people in cars have to slow down and stop, allowing the beggars to engage them with their pitiful looks, their cute dogs, sometimes infants, and signs that must always, for some reason, be on brown corrugated cardboard.  Some are ambulatory, with pleas for gas money, a bus ticket, or a meal.  I recently visited Las Vegas and its Strip for the first time, which looks like Disney World if it had been designed by Caligula.  There begging is an art form, and I remember in particular one young man, fashionably petulant, with a sign that read "Too good looking to be homeless", and people were giving him money.

I have numerous memories of such scams.  One involves a big-hearted woman I once knew, who responded to a beggar who said he needed money because he hadn't eaten in days.  She bought him a McDonald's combo meal.  He retired to the back corner of a parking lot to consume it but then returned to the same corner (as I pointed out to her) with the same story.  I occasionally travelled around Houston with a minister who was part of a gospel mission shelter.  As he would pull to a stop in an intersection, he would motion to the beggars who would come up to his window with an expectation of money, but he would give them his card and tell them of the food, shelter and safety at the shelter.  Some would argue and try to make excuses, but he had heard them all and always had a ready answer.  He would tell me that he despaired that any would take up his offer, but he felt compelled to try, if only to embarrass the fakers.  I helped run events and programs of the Boy Scouts in the inner city and invariably had to address those who were eager to take advantage but naturally expect that we would pay for the relatively inexpensive uniforms and fees and other incidentals, despite what I saw was a readiness to spend money on other things.  I remember one woman was rather irate about it until I felt compelled to point out the $150 pair of shoes (in mid-1990s' dollars) on her son's feet, as just one example. 

Perhaps it was all those years that I spent overseas in places with true poverty, and more dread of the future than in Wards 4 and 5 of Houston, that gave me a better perspective.  I remember my host nation companions in foreign countries remarking (not that I needed to have it pointed out to me) about how the many people in the US that would line up for free federal cheese handouts – talking to reporters about how bad off they were – were all fat, and wearing t-shirts that advertised Disneyland or the Hard Rock Café. 

Then there is the Christmas contingent, an example of which I would see each year when I had an observation of an overpass in downtown Houston.  Otherwise devoid of the homeless in good weather, the site would be occupied by those who would bring their own cardboard boxes for sleeping containers and their blankets, ready for the television crews who would show up for the annual interviews and vetting of why there is such poverty in America, inviting further income for the squatters.  The news crews would be on speed-dial if the authorities attempted to move them, always for more footage for the ten o'clock news.  Such coverage goes up in times of Republican presidential administrations, as Mark Helprin pointed out in his Wall Street Journal article of 2000, with the increased coverage phenomenon from the time of the Reagan administration and predicting – rightly – a spike again in the coverage when we shifted from President Clinton to Bush: "If George W Bush becomes president, the armies of the homeless, hundreds of thousands strong, will  once again be used to illustrate the opposition's arguments about welfare, the economy, and taxation."  (All this despite an overall increase of the homeless during Clinton's time.)  And can you say that coverage of the homeless under Obama has been anywhere near the level as under Bush?  No, of course not. 

This excludes the numbers of the mentally unstable, another topic entirely, who have been ill-served by those who profess to do 'the right thing' by them.  President Reagan turned the responsibility and the budgeting over to the states and local governments with the idea that the issue could (and should) be handled closer to home, but the challenge was not taken up.  If the national taxes were lowered thereby, then local taxes could be increased (though not to the same level as the discount) in order to handle what the bureaucracies were crying was a crisis, among the many others.  ('Crisis' in this sense includes the notion that large expenditures of federal tax money must be allotted to these bureaucracies and their union employees, and quickly.)  Criticism still continues along this vein, as if only Washington has the answer.
 
Donald Sensing of the Sense of Events web log does admirable work by placing the question of charity as it relates to guilt-trip charlatans in proper perspective.  First, to be precise, this is the work of the Reverend Donald Sensing, who brings to his calling a background where he has had a better experience at seeing what constitutes actual desperation and on-the-edge potential for disaster, having previously served a career in the United States Army.  This dose of reality which is available to fewer of us as time goes by – fewer still with the gutting of the military underway within the Obama administration – serves him well in combination with his service of some years as a Methodist minister.  He describes in detail one such encounter with a one of what he calls the "Professional Poor", and then: 
The hopeful light in her eyes dims when she hears my reply: "We do all of our direct charitable assistance through two local agencies.  One is twenty-five miles away but the other is not even two miles down the street.  However, I have no idea whether they are still open on Christmas Eve at this hour.  I will be glad to give you directions."
The last thing the Professional Poor want to do is deal with a charity agency.  Agencies know every scam out there and even know the names of the Professional Poor who do them.  Agency workers view the Professional Poor with all the compassion of a Swiss banker.
Clara knows she's not making the sale.  She makes a final, desperate push: "Oh, we don't have enough gas to make it that far."  (So you intend to drive to Wisconsin how?) 
I say nothing because there is nothing to say.  Without a word she suddenly bags her props and walks out the door.  Like any astute business woman, she knows when to cut her losses.  On to the next client.
 Like the Rev Sensing in Tennessee, we have a similar agency clearinghouse here locally and I have seen it work.  Once such a charlatan is detected, the word is spread throughout the church community and they are fended off when they show up at their next attempt.  I saw my minister inform one such fellow that he knew of his previous try, and that was the last that we, or the community, saw of him.

But I have known people dying of cancer, and their families; young widows; four young sisters and their mother recently widowed by suicide, and others in different tragic circumstances, yet they never thought to beg – never.
 
I also refuse to give to the annual state-sponsored charity campaigns that drive through my facility.  That is just one more layer of bureaucracy to support, with a list of politically correct agencies, that I will not waste my time on.  I already give to charities, such as the Boy Scouts of America or the Wounded Warriors Project for example, that are not included, and I do not care to support GLAAD.  The claim that you can designate a specific charity for your donation, such as the American Cancer Society (which I already support), is disingenuous.  That agency's share of the take has already been assigned, with the idea that the total of specific and targeted donations is not going to surpass the percentage already designated.  The entire idea that is foisted on the public is that larger professional organizations, or the government, is a better place for your donation that what you as an individual chooses.

And I mentioned Las Vegas before.  The city has an enormous amount of the destitute if one goes by the numbers.  For while we talk of 'food stamps', they have practically ceased to exist as an accounting measure.  Instead, in order to shield the poor from uncomfortably flashing the stamps in public, most states have instituted debit cards, with money deposited into their accounts.  When agencies have tracked their use, such as a recent investigation out of California, many have turned up in the oddest charitable institutions, like casinos, liquor stores, and cruise ships in places like the aforementioned Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Miami.  The New York Post has included another investigation with similar results.

The observation of Christ in Matthew 25:40 concerning the "least of these" does not have you resting on the effort of the Combined Federal Campaign.  It should not be conflated with "render unto Caesar".

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