Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Charity Reconsidered Pt.1

Some questions I am thinking about.

Social work came as a profession out of the perceived need in the nineteenth century to make charity more organized and scientific. Random and sentimental charity needed to be replaced by a more systematic approach resting on a base of knowledge and skill aimed at truly helping those in need. By the turn of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the term charity itself became something of an embarrassment. It had roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, as with science and philosophy, some of its professional advocates sought to develop it as a secular activity independent of theology or religious duty.

Charity came under even stronger attack from Social Darwinists and eugenicists like Herbert Spencer and in the 1920s and 1930s, Margaret Sanger. The Great Depression and the rise of the welfare state further marginalized charity. The concept of individual rights—as understood historically and by the American Founders as a negative freedom from state interference—expanded into a claim on state provision. As this happened, social workers and statist liberals saw help for the poor as progressing “from charity to justice,” to a matter of rights or claims on the public purse rather than either gratuitous self-giving or a casual handout.

In more recent decades, the corporatist and statist assumptions of the welfare state came increasingly under critical scrutiny. This was partly as a result of concerns about long-term dependency and demoralization; partly because of the rising costs and perceived threat to competitiveness in a global economy; and partly because of a concern that services had become bureaucratic, fragmented, disempowering, and generally unresponsive to those they were meant to serve.

The earlier critiques of charity have thus lost much of their force in face of the problems of its statist alternative. (That charitable activity—in the sense of the voluntary giving of time, treasure, and talent to help others—is still in a kind of hydraulic relation with state, tax-funded provision is shown in the path-breaking work of Arthur C. Brooks (see his Who Really Cares? America’s Charity Divide—Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters). That is, the more you favor public, tax-funded provision, the less you yourself give voluntarily to charity. There is a big gulf between the level of charitable giving between Europe (low) and the U.S. (high); between the secular (low) and religious (high); between liberals (low, except for religious liberals) and conservatives (high). It seems that modern social welfare, no less than its historic predecessors, cannot be understood without reference to charity and its interaction with state provision.

Is it time to reconsider the concept, history, and meanings of charity in a new, less dismissive light?

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