Whether you agree with it or not, the reason this country has supported programs like welfare, Social Security, the GI Bill, food stamps, Medicare, government-backed mortgages, FEMA insurance, and other social programs is because a modern society benefits when as many citizens as possible have opportunities to succeed financially. Social programs aren’t perfect and don’t always provide what they promise, and there’s always a small percentage who take advantage of the system.
The push-and-pull between the focus on the society and the focus on the individual existed even before the founding of the nation, and this particular Weeble that wobbles between left and right without falling down (yet) has allowed the United States to become the biggest economy in the world in a relatively short period of time, and that’s a good thing.
From an individual perspective, it might not be that intuitive that one needs to be concerned about the “very poor.” After all, with social safety nets, one might think that the “very poor” have little to worry about. Regardless of the existence of programs — both public and private — poverty is still an issue in this country, even if you don’t see it in your daily life as you shuffle in an office building from meeting to meeting or shuttle from city to city on business trips. It’s hard to be concerned about something if you aren’t faced with it every day.
If, however, you are concerned about the “very poor,” there are ways to help, even if you don’t believe that handouts are effective. The most popular rationalization for not caring about poverty is the idea that helping another individual teaches complacency rather than responsibility, interdependence rather than independence. The incorrect assumption is that families in destitute situations have no desire to work for their money like those who have built wealth for themselves and have earned the right to let their money do the work for them and receive income from dividends and interest rather than working in the middle-class and working-middle-class sense of the word.
The real problem is tied into that psychology 101 concept I turn to repeatedly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If most waking minutes in your day are spent worrying about your shelter, your food, and having a safe place to sleep, “income mobility” is a fantasy. You’re a victim of “class warfare,” but in your reality, you don’t have time or energy for political arguments about class warfare.
If you are concerned about the very poor, there are options. Helping bring attention to poverty can form provide opportunities to those without them without much sacrifice from those with opportunities.
- Give money directly to organizations that run programs focusing on providing opportunities. The top-rated charities focusing on poverty according to Charity Navigator are Direct Relief International (although International is in the name, they also work to eliminate domestic poverty, particularly in disaster-stricken areas), SOME (So Others Might Eat, focusing on the D.C. area), and the People’s Resource Center (based in Chicago). If you prefer to give a hand-up rather than a hand-out, focus on organizations that provide job training and placement, programs that expand the reach of educational opportunities, and programs that present positive financial role models.
- Volunteer with the organizations that run these programs. Build houses. Build schools. Help at a food bank. When you are actively involved, you get to experience the results of your work much more closely than if you were to send a check every month. No, you won’t get a tax deduction for volunteer work, but that’s not the point.
- Become a community leader. When people from poor communities manage to succeed financially, they often don’t return to be the role model their community needs. This is the reason financial illiteracy is a problem that will continue from generation to generation, keeping low socio-economic status communities from thriving.
Are you concerned about the very poor? Does paying your taxes and being satisfied with existing social safety nets relieve you from any other possible responsibilities for how the country fares as a whole? Do we even have any responsibilities to anyone other than ourselves and our families?
Published or updated February 3, 2012.