Charitable Appeals and the Deserving Poor

During the holiday season in the US, almost every newspaper runs some sort of charitable appeal or highlights community charities in a series of stories. It may keep track of donations from readers in a little box on the front page so people feel good about themselves. It discusses the good works of charities and interviews beneficiaries and generally paints a picture of perseverance in times of hardship, people struggling against overwhelming odds. These stories are meant to be uplifting even as they are a chiding reminder to holiday celebrants that not everyone has access to the same things that they do, so they ought to give a little to help out. And people contribute and feel better about the world and express faith in the society around them.

There is a significant problem with these holiday charity appeals and requests for donations and other assistance in general, with some obvious and notable exceptions. It has to do with the way the recipients of charity tend to be framed in appeals, with the narratives about poverty and hardship promoted by charities and the organisations that support them. The same newspapers that highlight charities every holiday season reinforce these narratives in their year-round reporting, to make readers feel good about them when November and December come around and the demands for money start to appear on the front page.

Charity, you see, is for the deserving poor. The selected recipients chosen for profiles are carefully cultivated by charities and the organisations that do the profiles; a journalist who approaches a charity for a story will get a list of carefully vetted clients to interview, and the charity will exercise extreme caution when it selects people. Thus, a journalist talking about the food bank might interview a surgical nurse who was laid off and forced into economic hard times with a single dependent child who happens to be precocious and full of potential, but the mother with six children relying on welfare is not brought forward as an interview subject. One is ‘deserving’ and the other is not.

Narratives about poverty in the United States tend to focus on a specific framework that differentiates deserving from not very neatly, with a bright, shiny, stark line. Deserving poor people are cheerful, work through their hardship, don’t waste money on frivolities. They believe in the American Dream and they work very hard and they just want to have a chance at success, they fully buy that opportunities are available if they just reach out a little longer, stretch themselves a little more. They deserve charity because they are models of how to do poverty right.

People who are unhappy, people who are angry, people who ‘waste’ money, they are not deserving poor. They are a drag on the system, they shouldn’t receive any assistance. They are clearly reckless, and are in distressed circumstances because of their own selfish and ridiculous behaviour. After all, unemployed people shouldn’t have children, because they won’t be able to take care of them and will expect society to bail them out. Poor people shouldn’t waste time whining when they could be looking for work or engaging in robust and healthful self improvement activities. Homeless people shouldn’t have dogs if they can’t take care of them.

And charitable appeals firmly reinforce this dichotomy of poverty. These ‘neediest cases’ profiles focus on the heart-wrenching stories that fit beautifully and cleanly into this narrative, the people who just fell upon hard times through no fault of their own. But they don’t want handouts, oh no. They might need a little help but they want to work hard and pay it forward. They are clean and scrubbed and bright, they have hopes for the future even though they are living in bleak times, and you, gentle newspaper reader, can help them realise their dreams. You can help these deserving poor, you can lift them up out of poverty and hardship.

You can ignore the ‘hard cases,’ the people entrenched in poverty who moan and whine about it and line up for government handouts and then waste them on soda pop and video games. They do not deserve your assistance, no reputable charity would work with them. They haven’t fallen on hard times, they’ve made their own hard times, you see. Society has no obligation to them. If it did, they’d be the topic of newspaper profiles in a positive light, instead of showing up only when the paper wants to raise the spectre of ‘welfare fraud’ and reinforce popular myths about people living high on food stamps or SSDI.

Many charities fall into this trap when it comes to talking about their clients because, in no small part, they don’t want to alienate donors. If they provide assistance to ‘undesirables,’ suddenly they are less sexy targets for newspaper profiles and public appeals. Needle exchange organisations, for example, rarely show up in seasonal charity appeals in the paper, because the population they serve is not one that fits into the deserving, ‘good’ poor model. For organisations that want to build donations and create a positive image in the community, it is necessary to stick within the confines of this narrative, even if it is actively harmful, even if it excludes some of their own clients.

A shift in attitudes about poverty and who ‘deserves’ assistance and what kind of assistance should be made available cannot happen overnight, and charities really cannot lead that charge, because they need to focus on serving their populations now. Unfortunately, that often means actively harming their own causes, because they are positioned in a place with minimal choice. It is too dangerous to advocate for all needy people when money is on the line; the responsibility here lies with the powerful and wealthy donors who could be promoting charity for all. With the newspapers who report on social issues year round, not just in the seasonal charity appeal, and shape perceptions of these appeals with the narratives they put forward on the front page every day.