Recently I joined a facebook group for my town. I would like to know more local people, and it's a good way to keep up on what's going on around me -- free concerts, craft clubs, whatever. It also gives me the beneficial experience that Chesterton describes of loving your neighbor precisely because he is nothing like you.
What gets me, though, is how much poverty there is. Many of the postings are pleas for help -- someone's power is getting cut off, or they are getting evicted, or they don't have food, or whatever. If this happened once in awhile, I'd be thankful for it, because I do want to pitch in and help my neighbors. But it's so frequent that I couldn't possibly help them all, and I feel like scrolling by in a hurry so I don't have to see how much need there is around me.
Of course, the problem is that when a random person asks for help on Facebook, they could be anybody. They might not really need the help. Or they might be relying on my help to get them through a crisis without ever learning from it or turning their life around -- perpetually begging for money when what they need is a job. And I know heroin is big in this town, what if they are just going to spend it on that? You know. The same reasons most of us walk by panhandlers, but without the awkwardness of avoiding eye contact.
I always thought that helping one's neighbors personally was always the best way. When you help someone personally, you know their situation and what will most help better than a faceless bureaucracy can. And yet I'm beginning to question whether that is really so. A faceless bureaucracy can look at their pay stubs!
Another issue with private charity is that it is usually short term. A person posts, "I need help with this month's rent," and people pitch in for that month's rent. But next month, the rent needs to be paid again. They are not getting consistent help. And that gives them one of the worst effects of poverty -- constant anxiety, not knowing if you are going to be able to make it next month, or how.
Perhaps this is in some way one of the upsides to private charity. People want to bail out others who are in a temporary tight spot, but they don't want to subsidize long-term poverty. They think that if the poor are sufficiently uncomfortable and anxious, they'll eventually get a job. I'm not sure this is true -- from what I can find out, people stay in poverty not because they are comfortable there, but because they lack avenues out of it. Stable assistance can be helpful for getting out of poverty -- for instance, a person might rely on some form of aid while they get job training or finish a degree. But one-time help, unless it's something big like a car, is not likely to help anyone out of long-term poverty.
It's something I've mentioned in the past regarding crisis pregnancy centers. They are quick to offer poor expectant mothers a crib or some baby clothes. But that mother is almost certainly not thinking "I could afford a baby if only I had a crib." She realizes that if she's barely living on her job as it is, she can't afford daycare, but if she quits her job she's living on nothing. Free daycare is much more than private charity can generally provide, and so is income assistance for a lost job. In this country, maternity leave is not guaranteed or paid -- so the day that child is born, the mother starts losing money until she is able to get back to work. This is a really, really big problem and almost certainly the cause of many abortions, but crisis pregnancy centers and private charity are not able to address it.
I'm not talking about the commonly cited problem of there just not being enough private charity. The argument here is that if only we didn't have to pay taxes, we'd have more to spare for private charity and would give more. That's surely true, and one would hope people would be willing to give as much if they had a choice, but my issue is more one of coordination. I don't know the poor single mothers in my town, if I do know them, I don't know if I can trust them, and if I know and trust them, I'm still only one person and I'm not able to provide all they need. And, of course, there are more poor people than rich people in my town -- much of the money in the state is in other parts of it, so that "relying on your neighbors" means that the more you need help, the less help there is near you. Then there's the reliability issue. If you're three months pregnant, you need to know there will be help six months from now. Individuals are rather flaky and you can't take the chance of being left hanging.
Now, of course, many of these problems can be solved by charitable organizations -- neither individuals nor government. Like government, a charity can investigate to find out if applicants are in real need, and it can provide more long-term help. Unfortunately most of the ones I can find around me don't. For instance, there's a soup kitchen that provides a free dinner on Wednesday nights. What are people supposed to eat the other six nights? There's a men's homeless shelter, but nothing for women. It's just very spotty. And again, it varies based on area -- our town has resources funded by the modest incomes of the people who live in it. Considering that poverty is very high in large swathes of the country, it's not always enough to have assistance funded by your neighbors.
I think private charity will always have a place. But a real safety net is going to have to be coordinated, capable of checking up on people, spread out across the country, and most of all, not riddled with holes. The government is going to do a better job of this than private charity. Even it isn't doing a stellar job, partly for political reasons and partly because bureaucracy is awful. I think minimum income would waste less money while leaving fewer holes.
The other argument against public charity has been quoted at me all my life: you don't get any credit for helping the poor with other people's money. People say it like it's a conversation-ending sucker punch, but it doesn't mean anything to me. I don't want credit. I want poor people to be helped. They will be helped just as much with my money or with someone else's. And of course, some of that money is mine (we are now so wealthy we pay taxes! hooray!) and considering that I have to pay it anyway, I'd rather see it go to the poor than elsewhere. If a person really is opposed to all taxation, it is at least a principled position, but if you believe that the government has a right to tax at all, ruling out welfare is inconsistent. Why should that money not be spent on what is most needed?
(This is how you know that I am only a practical libertarian. I'm not against government when it works well. I just know that it rarely does, and that there are many things it tries to do that it can't succeed at. I don't have a problem with taxation on principle because I don't think the right to property is absolute.)
Meanwhile I think there's always going to room for private charity. There are very specific helpful things, from ESL classes to job training, that nonprofit organizations can provide efficiently. And for occasional needs, person-to-person assistance is great. You can donate to a GoFundMe to help someone start a business or purchase a vehicle to get to work. Every little bit helps.
So long as you don't do what I am so often tempted to do -- feel compassion, want to help, then talk yourself out of doing anything because you're not sure it will help. Better to give something sometimes to somebody than nothing, no matter how you work it out. Surely it will make a difference to the person who receives it.