Where Charity Begins

PUBLISHED: December 21, 2011

A radio commercial for the United Way makes a good point: Some people who have been contributors in past holiday seasons are now in need themselves.

An even more sobering reminder comes from the international relief organization Oxfam America: This season's must-have holiday gifts are food and water.

I thought about both messages the other day while taking a phone call from a volunteer at our local high school with a polite request for a donation to support the baseball team. I wished her well but said that right now, with so many Americans out of work, homeless and hungry, every dollar I can spare will have to go to more urgent causes.

Was I wrong? This month, when the bulk of the year's charitable giving occurs, perhaps we should apply a triage system in making our donations.

Last year, Americans gave about $290 billion to charities, but only about 10% went directly to social and human services, which includes food and shelter. More money goes to education, primarily colleges and universities. About a third is donated to churches and religious organizations, many of which, it should be noted, operate programs to help the hungry. Even so, a surprisingly small percentage of the nation's charitable giving winds up feeding and sheltering folks who desperately need it.

If you encountered a starving child holding a starving puppy, would your first step be to offer food to the dog? Obviously not. Yet we buy new uniforms for the baseball team, build a new wing on the college library, and give cash to our public radio station at a time when a Gallup poll shows that almost one in five Americans have struggled to feed themselves or their families in the past year — a rate three times higher than among people in China.

This correlates precisely with recent Census Bureau figures showing over 20% of American children now living in poverty. Among black children, the figure is a staggering 38%.

The nation's food banks are being squeezed badly this year, dealing with steep cuts in federal aid at the very time when the number of hungry people is expanding.

It's not as if Americans don't care, sometimes they just don't focus. When CBS's 60 Minutes presented a moving close-up by Scott Pelley of homeless families in central Florida who have taken to living in their cars and trucks, and parking at gas stations to use the bathroom, more than a million dollars came in, even though the broadcast made no request for donations.

On the other hand, there remains an unfortunate skepticism in the minds of some when it comes to funding human services. Recipients are gaming the system, it is argued, taking handouts instead of working harder. The nation's unemployment figures and statistics regarding hunger would seem to refute that — or at least render concerns about a few irrelevant, considering the needs of many.

Then, too, there are complexities in the mind-sets of donors. Some people are moved by causes that only interest them or have touched them directly. People give to schools they attended, fund research into diseases that affected loved ones and donate to churches as a direct expression of their faith.

Several representatives of charities not connected with human services told me that it's a mistake to assume that if donors didn't channel money to them it would necessarily go other causes. More likely, it wouldn't be given away at all.

This may be the year to amend that, because the need for the basics of life are so urgently needed by so many.

Giving to any good cause is always better than not giving at all. Right now, giving to those who need it most is better yet.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in USA Today.

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