Americans give over $300 billion per year to charities, and the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the peak donation window. Salvation Army bell-ringers hit the sidewalks, vacant strip mall storefronts transform into Toys for Tots depots, and local newspapers feature stories about poor children gratefully receiving new shoes.
All this occasion-specific giving betrays a paradox at the heart of our political culture. Once a year people with cash to spare demonstrate a collective awareness of the severity and immorality of economic inequality. Animating the seasonal generosity is a notion at odds with prevailing ideology: namely, that something is wrong with the way our society distributes wealth. The phenomenon of Christmas giving is a large-scale admission that many are unable to attain modest comforts even though they deserve them.
Millions of people who donate to charity are otherwise stubbornly invested in capitalist meritocracy, and tend to associate wealth with ingenuity, dedication, and moral hygiene. Although the majority of Americans who make more than $50,000 per year — apparently the rough cutoff for having enough discretionary income to donate — believe that poor people have it easy, they also donate en masse each year, in recognition that poor people have it hard. Republicans are more likely to donate to charity than Democrats, but they’re also less likely to believe that people are poor for reasons beyond their control. Nearly half of all Christians — who are more likely to give to charity than the non-religious — say that poverty results from a lack of effort.
It’s perplexing to say the least. But many who give the most during the holiday season are guilty of more than inconsistency — the wealthiest among them actively engineer the conditions that generate poverty, and they relentlessly thwart attempts to alleviate economic hardship on an institutional scale. An extreme example is the Koch brothers, whose philanthropic network provides community holiday meals to poor people, while simultaneously organizing powerful friends around a brutally austere political program.
This December the wealthy of all political persuasions will attend tasteful winter charity galas in formal attire. Their table fees will go to assisting some immiserated population, often poor children. But the moment the tinsel comes down, they’ll resume a litany of practices that are actively harmful to poor children — they’ll employ those children’s parents at the lowest possible wage, develop cities in ways that displace those who weren’t born into affluence, and support political candidates who cut benefits programs that poor families need to survive.
If seasonal benefactors really want to alleviate suffering, they need to replace moral explanations with structural ones, and charity with policy. Even when they wax maudlin, they’re correct: it is unacceptable for poor children to have holes in their shoes in the dead of winter. But the way to fix that is not through donation drives and galas, endowments and philanthropic pageantry. It’s through anti-austerity social policy, decommodification of goods and services, and systematic wealth redistribution, for starters.
Ameliorating economic inequality through a steeply progressive tax system, tight regulation of corporations, and robust universal social programs won’t feel as compassionate or intimate to anybody in the moment. No one’s eyes will well with tears of gratitude, and there will be no admiring applause. Instead the relief will occur continuously, diffusely and cumulatively, on a mass scale. It will feel impersonal, and individual gratification will be deferred. And let’s not beat around the bush: it will hurt the finances of the wealthy, while improving the finances of the dispossessed. That weakening of the class hierarchy will be the point.
Investing in the public over the private sector will diminish hardship more successfully than intermittent displays of magnanimity. It won’t simply feel good, and it won’t simply look good; in fact, to some people it may not feel or look good at all. But when it comes to solving the kinds of problems that tug on people’s heartstrings during holiday charity season, it will do something far better — it will actually help people who are in need.