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
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.