The poor shall never cease out of the land.
- Deuteronomy 15:11
Theres no time like a birthday to take stock. Not that kind of stock. This year, rather than dwell on my well-being, Ive decided to examine my well-thinking. About those cherished opinions, is it time for a change?
What has me thinking dark thoughts when Im supposed to be blowing out my candles and munching on my cake are all the problems in the world that dont seem to have solutions. War, crime, poverty - in spite of what I think, or what my country does, will these things ever be like old soldiers and just fade away?
Elie Wiesel has spent his life trying to right the wrongs of the world. The holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner has written extensively about why such problems exist and how they might be solved. After world peace, human dignity, or the problem of the poor, is next on his list. Surprisingly, he believes giveaway programs, so popular with philanthropic organizations and most Americans, rarely work.
Wiesel expressed this opinion after a well-meaning group went to a third world county to demonstrate machines that would make local farming more productive. But, Wiesel said, the people couldnt afford to buy enough equipment to make the project work. He criticized the group for giving the farmers a few tools, but opening their eyes to a reality that could never be theirs. Without supplying more machines or teaching greater expertise, he said, it would have been better if they had not gone there at all.
In my ongoing study of Columbia County, Ive come across the phrase, victims of philanthropy, which former University of North Carolina Professor Milton Ready used to describe the reason for establishing the Colony of Georgia.
Poverty was a great problem in 18th-century England. Parliaments solutions included workhouses where the formerly unemployed worked long hours under terrible conditions for a token wage, and debtors prisons for those who couldnt pay their bills. Both ideas were self-defeating; neither offered any hope or lasting solution to the poor. Through novels like Oliver Twist, English author Charles Dickens alerted the public to conditions in the workhouse, while James Oglethorpe conceived a colony called Georgia in the new world to give the poor a new start.
The Georgia experiment sounded wonderful, but it didnt solve the problem. By the time the first settlers sailed for the new colony, few debtors were on board. Creditors often wouldnt let debtors go, and others were disqualified for their less-than-worthy reputations. Ready offers some Wiesel-like thoughts about why, in this case, philanthropy didnt work.
Rather than demonstrate Englands altruism, the Georgia plan was an attempt to solve the problem by sending the poor 3,000 miles away and out of Englands sight, if not out of their mind. Throughout history, the more affluent a society becomes, the greater the need to regulate their social inferiors.
Fast forward to 21st-century United States, where at last count nearly 30,000 private, charitable foundations give away more $6 billion a year besides what the federal, state and local governments provide in various forms of aid. Thirty years ago the federal government spent 4.4 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) on assistance programs; 10 years ago the rate was 13 percent. Even if the numbers were to go down, rising expenses for programs begun in good faith often exceed even an affluent societys ability to bear their cost. Also, as much as the populace and politicians alike cry for reduced government spending, campaign rhetoric teems with promises of a better life in exchange for the right vote.
Whether we break historic precedent and eradicate poverty someday or not, we have much to learn from the past and the wise. In our passion to help the needy, or elect those who will, we need to count the whole cost, including money, education, personal involvement and time to see our benevolence through. A bone here, a months rent there, a piece of machinery for a third-world farm, is not enough. Neither is the idea that if we just do something our guilt is gone and our work is done.
Birthday or not, I was correct. Sometimes my idea isnt best and I, or the country or the political party I support, cant solve a problem at all. At least not by ourselves. I wonder, would it help if we crossed a few aisles, pooled our ideas and worked together?
Now theres a new thought.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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