Yet another reason to hate the charity-industrial complex

It being December, everywhere you look, there are charitable appeals. Most include sob stories about individuals, usually very carefully calculated and presented for maximum impact, with pleas to donate to one organisation or another, large and small, local and international, religious and non. Charities are offering food, clothing, medical care, housing assistance, literacy education, toys for children, and a host of other goods and services.

This is the result of living in charity culture, a systemic shift from providing basic services (like health care) directly through the government to outsourcing them to charities, effectively privatising government services. The United States has taken to this with zest, using ‘faith-based initiatives’ to feed massive contracts to charitable organisations. Many charities are perfectly nice groups doing great work. Some are okay, but not super efficient. Others are dreadful, wasting the bulk of their donations, imposing religious or personal beliefs on the people they claim to help, sponsoring hateful initiatives, and generally being bad actors.

Usually at this time of year, I take the opportunity to write about various aspects of the charity-industrial complex and why it’s such a problem. This year, I’d like to turn the lens away from charity a little bit and into one very clear consequence of privatising government services.

Here’s the thing: Government has a responsibility to provide for the needs of its people. There is a social contract that all of us have to fulfill, though some of us believe in that social contract more than others. We live in an unequal society and there are a lot of things we need to do about it, but in the immediate now, we need to recognise that some people in this society do not have a good quality of life, and we need to take steps to fix that even as we also look at the broader social issues that are creating these problems. Put bluntly: The government needs to spend money on creating an acceptable minimum standard of living for everyone, while also correcting the social issues that put people in a position where they cannot reach this standard of living on their own.

I believe that there should be a guaranteed basic minimum income. I believe that people should have safe, warm, comfortable places to live. That they should always have enough to eat. That they should receive an education. Have seasonally appropriate clothing. Have access to resources for enrichment like toys and books. That they should be entitled to comprehensive health care. That they have the right to take pleasure in life: That they should be able to go to the beach, easily reach playgrounds and parks, go to the movies, and engage in other activities that make their lives more enjoyable. I find it completely unacceptable that people do not have access to these things.

When the government offers these things, they are services: We recognise collectively that we owe a duty of care to the people who live here, and that we should take steps to make people’s lives better — in part because it benefits all of society, not just the people getting those benefits (though that should be enough). Just as the government manages roads, oversees air traffic, runs public health initiatives, provides transit, and engages in a host of other activities to improve quality of life and civic functioning, it should be offering services like a minimum basic income, housing and food assistance, high-quality public educatio, universal single-payer health care, and so forth.

When the government transitions these things to charity, it does several things. It likes to claim that this improves cost savings and efficiency, though in fact it does not — a centralised administrator of services is generally less expensive. The right likes to claim that this puts power into the hands of individual states as they decide what is important to them and provide it — in theory, a nice idea (‘we probably don’t need a winter coat programme in Florida’), but one that works out to slashing services to people who need them.

What it also does, which is really important, is that it transitions these services and entitlement programmes (I don’t think entitlement is a dirty word, it in fact perfectly describes the provision of services that people should be entitled to as part of a decent society that believes in treating humans with respect) into the realm of charity. Suddenly they are no longer services, but ‘benefits’ — like a nifty little add-on that can be altered or yanked at any time, because it’s not a core part of social services. And they are ‘charity,’ a gift from the put-upon wealthy who grudgingly support the poor when they are not able to take care of themselves.

I don’t actually thing charity is a particularly bad thing, nor do I think it is a thing people should be ashamed of needing, though society should be ashamed of putting people in a position to need it. I do not think it should be used to provide basic services, however, for a host of reasons, one of which is that privatising these services makes people think of them as frivolous add-ons, or as patronising programmes ‘for the unfortunate.’ There are lots of reasons why people need government services. They shouldn’t be ashamed of them, nor should people make assumptions about who is using them and why. For things like universal single-payer health care, everyone should be using public services.

When people see charities doing things that are lovely, but not strictly necessary (Make A Wish, for example) and they also see charities doing things that are basic services (food banks), it gets easy to conflate the two. Why should governments provide food assistance? Food banks will pick up the slack, and anyway, food is just a nice thing to have, not an imperative necessity, right? Why are people treating it like a human right or something?

Image: Charity, Hugh Cardoso, Flickr