Holiday charity drives are in full swing as suddenly everyone seems to care about ‘the less fortunate.’ The food drive cans are dragged out to the checkstands in the supermarket, the newspaper profiles the woeful of our community, and the mail from charitable organisations stacks up in my post office box, clamouring for my funds and attention; I am a cold, cruel person, I know, striding insouciantly through the day, mocking these justified, righteous, and kindly attempts at making the world a better place. Surely I should be ashamed of myself for casting aspersion on the winter charity season.
The thing is, though, that this time of year makes me especially bitter and angry at the state of this country, because it’s such a stark reminder of the inability to focus on structural and institutional problems. Instead, the burden is put solely on individuals (and the myth of the ‘deserving poor‘ is indulged) with these Queen for a Day sob stories intended to elicit pity and funds. While these stories may humanise people, reminding the reader or viewer that real actual human beings are poor and struggling, they also create a narrative of personal responsibility, suggesting that personal-level fixes are the solution to these issues.
Yet, issues of poverty are not about what individual poor people are and are not doing. They are about larger institutional structures in our society and the way in which they make people poor and keep them poor. Class mobility is at an all time low right now, unless you want to talk about downward mobility, and the fact is that many people in this country live a single paycheque away from homelessness and a dire situation. This government doesn’t provide health care, a good disability safety net, decent benefits to people who are underemployed and unemployed, or much else to those who are struggling.
Instead, it relies on these sob story charities to fill gaps, all while passing policy that is effectively deliberately designed to hurt people. The minimum wage stays artificially low at the behest of employers. Companies continue to pollute, not pay taxes, and exploit their workers because the government is slow to regulate them. Health care costs skyrocket, making it harder and harder for people to afford basic care. The system is deeply broken, and instead of knocking at the gates of the fortress, we are wandering around on the opposite side of the moat, picking daisies.
I hate charity drives for what they say about this country. They say that poverty is inevitable and that some people are always just going to be (should always just be) poor, the poor dears, so it’s up to us to help them out. They say that some people are poor because of their own sins and misdeeds, and while they should be punished the rest of the year by being left to flail, during the holidays we can all come together in fellowship and toss them a can of cranberry sauce, a hormone-laden turkey. They say that individuals are responsible for their own destinies, but they don’t confront us with our own complicity in the government policies that create a world of enforced poverty and suffering in the United States.
This is a time when we should be taking to the streets and the halls of legislature in rage, demanding change. This is a time when we should be agitating for fair wages, worker protections, better benefits for the most vulnerable in society, full health care for everyone. This is not a time when we should be dropping cans of tuna into a big bin at the grocery store to feel better about the fact that some of us can eat and some of us cannot; a can of tuna does not begin to make good on the systems that are broken in this country, nor is it some kind of positive contribution towards social change.
Which isn’t to say it’s not needed, it’s just not enough. By all means, donate to charity drives (but choose your recipients wisely), because people need help now, not later, not after abstract reforms pass. But don’t stop there. Because if you do, you’re part of the systems that are colluding to deepen class divides in the United States and keep some of us in a state of permanently enforced poverty and suffering while elevating others of us to the most powerful and comfortable seats in society.
This is fucked up, okay? I don’t know how else to describe it. It is fucked up and bullshit, and it is time for us to stop tolerating it, and when people are actually paying attention to it at this time of year, during this whole flood of charity drives and well-meaning attempts at feeling bad about this whole poverty time, that would be a sweet time for us to, like, do something. To hold our lawmakers accountable for the fact that people are starving to death in our communities. To challenge the norm that says some low-income people deserve charity and others do not. To push for better health care, better schools, and better lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We live in the world we want to live in, the world we have built around ourselves, the world we create through our own words and deeds. For me, tossing some dried apples into a bin and calling it good isn’t enough.