I begin with the obvious: charity is a good thing and people who help others from the goodness of their hearts are good people. But behind the light of charity is often a terrible darkness. This darkness often remains unseen, for attention is focused on the light.
In general, the media delights in stories of charity and it is right of them to praise the truly charitable. While presented as feel-good stories, they often hard a horror behind them—a horror that can be revealed with just a bit of thought. For example, consider the popular stories of school employees donating their sick days to a colleague who is undergoing treatment for cancer and has run out of sick days. The co-workers who donate their sick days are certainly to be lauded as good people; they are making a sacrifice to help another person. This is the light of the story. But a little thought reveals the darkness behind the light: the sick person, who might have been working for decades, needs the charity because they do not have enough sick days to cover a serious illness. It could be pointed out that such serious illnesses are unusual and that everything worked out because other people gave up their sick days.
While it is true that serious illnesses are uncommon, they are obviously not unheard of and a proper sick leave system would take that into account. As for other people donating sick days, this is problematic because they are then putting themselves at risk by giving up their sick days. Also, a sick leave system should not depend on a person’s luck or ability to get sympathy via social media. As such, while such stories do tell us about good people doing good, they also show that something terrible is going on with sick leave. If these were rare cases involving slackers, then that would be one thing. But these cases involve people who are working hard.
Continuing with another medical example, consider the use of GoFundMe to raise funds for medical expenses. This practice is now so common that the site has its own guide to the process. Giving to such fundraisers is certainly kind and stories about successful ones make for excellent feel good stories. I have given to several of them, sometimes for friends who have exhausted their insurance and savings and sometimes for strangers whose stories caught my attention.
While stories of successful fundraisers focus on the light, they generally fail to note the darkness. One obvious problem is that even people who have insurance, who have worked hard and who have done everything right (such as a person I went to school with) can end up with crushing medical debt. That they need to turn to public fundraising despite all this is harsh condemnation of the existing system. A second obvious problem is that while news stories focus on the successes, there is the fact that not all the fundraisers succeed or are enough to cover expenses. That the ability to pay for medical expenses can depend on social media savvy and the appeal of one’s story seems arbitrary and unfair.
It could be objected that only slackers and people who are bad at planning need to turn to GoFundMe—they are just trying to sponge of a gullible public. I will certainly not deny that some people are running scams, nor will I deny that some people get into medical debt because of poor life choices. However, as noted above, people who have worked hard, who got insurance, and who made good decisions can still end up having to appeal to strangers for assistance, because there are people creating and maintaining a brutal, predatory system. What is needed is something that both Democrats and Republicans have called for—a better healthcare system.
Moving away from medical charity, one might think that post-disaster charity has no dark side. After all, people who have suffered due to a fire, a hurricane or flooding are surely not the victims of a human-designed system. While they are the victims of natural disasters, some of these have been contributed to by climate change—hence, humans are partially responsible for creating the need for charity. There is also the fact that, as with medial expenses, people lack the resources to address natural disasters even if they have insurance, have worked hard and have done everything right. One reason for this is that wealth is highly concentrated and hence most people lack the resources to deal with such situations. The state (people acting collectively) does help, but it tends to have very limited resources to address such ever more common events. This is in part due to spending choices and in part due to decisions about revenue. As such, people are ever more dependent on the aid of others to deal with disasters. Once again, those who are best at social media appeals do best, while others fare less well. Solutions would include addressing the causes of disasters and having more public resources available to deal with them.
For there to be charity, there must be those who suffer and lack the resources to assuage their own suffering. Why people lack these resources is of considerable concern. In general, the dark side of charity is the dark side of our civilization: a system designed by people to hyper concentrate wealth means that most people lack the resources to address medical and natural disasters. There are also people who are so lacking in resources that every day is effectively a disaster. Hence, they must rely on appealing to others.
It could and has been argued that this system is a good one; that having a hyper-concentration of wealth and resources is better for everyone. This seems to be obviously untrue—it is not better for those who must rely on charity even when they have done everything they were supposed to do.
While some might be tempted to straw man my view and insist that I want to take all the money from the rich and distribute it among the poor, this is not true. Rather, what I advocate is fairly modest—that there should be real effort to adjust the system we have created so that more people can have adequate resources and that dealing with such things as medical problems does not require begging for money or pleading for donated sick days.