“So many of the people who need charity don’t seem to deserve it” . . .

. . . wrote Andy Rooney in this long-ago essay.  This makes as much sense as anything else Andy Rooney ever said, which is to say, not much.  What does it mean to “deserve” charity, beyond needing it?  As  George Bernard Shaw’s Alfred Doolittle  memorably explained  in Pygmalion,

If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski made the same point in somewhat more formal terms.

T]he mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made does not entail that we want our public policies to make it.  It is, after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the undeserving – maybe especially for governments, but for private charities too.

And Jewish folklore provides yet another version.  The story is told of a rabbi who gave a beggar $100 and then faced the reproaches of his wife, who’d seen the beggar’s wife wearing fur.  “He told me he needed it, and I had it, so I gave it to him,” replied the rabbi.  “What he does with it after is none of my concern.”  The point is that generosity is the process of separating yourself from your money, not the process of evaluating someone else’s virtues.

Does I give my money to causes I judge worthwhile (and therefore deserving) and to agencies I believe are efficient (and therefore deserving)?  Of course.  But do I worry about whether the UN Population Fund is providing assistance only to women who became pregnant by an angel, or whether the ACLU vindicates the rights only of upright church-goers?  Of course not.  People who need help, deserve help.  End of conversation.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

9 thoughts on ““So many of the people who need charity don’t seem to deserve it” . . .”

  1. Well, this attitude seems to me to be the essence of many current conservative positions. They will dress it up in ideas about governmental legitimacy, taxation, and the Constitution, but behind that is this notion that they do not want to be in community with certain types of people. (And yes, imho race is a giant part of that.) People they actually know (of whatever color) may be okay; people they don’t know must be up to something and are suspect until proven innocent.

    And the other hand, if the rabbi sees the same guy the next week, I’m guessing he’ll give him a lot less. That story seems to be more about a kind of fraud than just the question of self-help, no? Though, we don’t know what the beggar actually said! Yet lying does make things harder for the next beggar, is my point.

  2. None of which is to throw rain on your parade though.

    I’ll tell a little story. Back when I was getting UI, after a while “they” started making me fill out the little form on the back, to say what exactly I’d been doing to find work. I took this very personally, as many would. (Trust me, you don’t even want to know how much.)

    Once I started quantifying it though, I realized that my craigslist listings were actually much better than my listings from various snooty schools I went to. So in the end, though I don’t think I deserved suspicion, you could say that the verification process in that particular instance did prove ever so slightly helpful. In a mostly theoretical way.

    A long way of saying, I’ll never run for president!

  3. “The point is that generosity is the process of separating yourself from your money, not the process of evaluating someone else’s virtues.”

    I think that’s a point I have to reject. Is it really generosity to give a drunk on a binge $20 as he walks into a liquor store? If it is, it’s no form of generosity I want any part of.

    I’ve only got so much money to separate myself from, I’m going to be selective about how I separate myself from it.

  4. What does it mean to “deserve” charity, beyond needing it?

    People respond to incentives. If somebody can live on charity and is willing to do that rather than working, should we encourage that? I’d say no. I want to allocate the finite money I can afford to give to charity to people who are trying to take care of themselves, and for reasons truly beyond their control, currently need help. I’m going to help somebody, but that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to subsidize laziness.

  5. When I was in yeshiva, one of the rabbis went over some thought-provoking stories regarding charity from the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah, chapter 8). I don’t remember them well enough to repeat them here, but some of them are translated here (you have to scroll down a ways).

    See also Maimonides’ famous eight degrees of charity. The highest degree is to give someone a job or join with them in a business partnership so that they no longer need charity. However, the levels immediately below that involve the donor not knowing who the recipient is, and/or vice versa—Maimonides is very concerned that charity be given in a way that does not shame the recipient. Most charitable institutions today, not to mention government welfare programs, seem to be run on a different principle: the recipients abase themselves in exchange for money, and the donors give in exchange for the feeling of being superior.

  6. I thinkt he key point with deserving/undeserving is that assistance can be help, or it can be enablement; most people (rightly) prefer helping to enabling.

    1. Worse, enablement can choke off struggle towards self-reliance. If someone makes more money begging in the subway than he (perfectly able-bodied) would make washing windows, subway alms both take away from what I could give to someone who cannot wash windows and encourage the subway beggar to go on. The culture loses both ways, and the windows don’t get washed.

      That’s, on a micro scale, the same argument as ‘build it while it’s cheap’ instead of leaving folks on unemployment and not building.

  7. When I expend resources, I want something for myself in return. If the “something” I get is feeling like I’m a generous, superior person and the recipient of my largesse is a pitiable soul, so be it, as long as the recipient gets the money.

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