Why Public Needs Go Begging

For decades, Americans have been sold on rugged individualism and told to disdain collectivism and community, a philosophy that has starved many public institutions and fattened up the few at the top, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

I have been watching my postal mail more closely than usual. Like most other people, I rarely get personal letters in the postal mail – those having been shifted over to e-mail. So what is left to keep the United States Postal Service in business? It adds up to advertisements, the occasional bill and, most noticeably, non-stop charitable solicitations.

My address has been receiving, on average, four such solicitations a day. Given our six-day delivery schedule, that makes 24 a week. That is over 1,200 solicitations a year. This is not atypical. What can such a deluge possibly mean?

Mr. Moneybags from the "Monopoly" game

Mr. Moneybags from the “Monopoly” game

For one thing, it suggests that there are a wide array of community-related projects that are underfunded or simply not funded at all by public monies. These include various forms of medical research; local arts, including orchestras, theaters, and museums; parks and wildlife causes; animal shelters and rescue services; various sorts of poor-relief organizations such as the Salvation Army and Good Will; civil and human rights groups; women’s shelters; and volunteer fire companies. The list seems endless.

In the U.S. this process of charitable solicitation has become a big business. There is an article in the July 14 New York Review of Books entitled “The Undermining of American Charity.” According to the article, the “second most popular charity” in the U.S., in terms of donated dollars, is Fidelity Charitable, a branch of Fidelity Investments that acts as a “middleman” between “individual client accounts” and the charities they wish to support.

Fidelity holds the money and, of course, “manages” it for profit until the clients instruct the firm how to distribute the funds. Fidelity can also help the donor save on taxes by timing out donations. The charges and fees for all this make these “donor advised funds” money makers for “big finance.”

The authors of the NYRB essay don’t like this turn of events. They feel that too much of the charitable funds are being “hoarded” by such institutions as Fidelity in order to maximize profits. Charities end up with less.

Of course, someone was bound to turn charity into big business in an economy and culture that prioritizes the making of profit. But that apparent inevitability aside, what lesson can be learned from the large and growing role played by charitable solicitations in the United States?

An answer can be found in the proposition that, to the extent that a society is dependent on charity to satisfy community needs, the proper role of government is not being realized.

This conclusion is based on a commonsense social democratic point of view – one that assumes that the collective (working through government) has a responsibility to support activities that reflect important community interests. This is, ultimately, one of the purposes of government. Most of the charities soliciting funds through the U.S. Mail would fit into this category of activities.

A Perverse Philosophy

It is significant that, in the U.S., reluctance to use government to own up to this responsibility is rationalized in the name of “freedom” from economic restraint and taxes. That is, the perverse American philosophy of radical individualism preaches that government should not be responsible for community needs beyond supporting the justice system, national defense and the enforcement of contracts.

A classic photo of a poor mother and children in Elm Grove, California, during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

A classic photo of a poor mother and children in Elm Grove, California, during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

Everything else is the individual’s responsibility. Such a scheme, at least in theory, gives the citizen the “right” to “get rich” as well as the “right” to endure a lifetime of poverty.

As just suggested, this socio-economic state of affairs is packaged as the secret of success in the “land of opportunity,” where millions come to “make their fortune.” But there is a very high, yet under-recognized cost: a growing loss of any sense of responsibility to a greater holistic community.

One is reminded of one of Margaret Thatcher’s more ridiculous public statements (for the United Kingdom too has been infected by this philosophy of radical individualism) that there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals.

The most obvious consequence of this flawed approach is the pervasive alienation that at once reflects and causes the fractionalization of society. Because they are left adrift from a holistic national community (except, perhaps, when confronted by an alleged foreign enemy), Americans have learned to make do with tribal-like relationships based on local and regional identifications (particularly in the South), gender, class, race, and/or fraternal loyalties based on occupation (like the police).

We are also left with a social structure where there are no longer adequate safety nets, because the funding of such things requires a deeper sense of government responsibility to a community than the prevailing individualistic philosophy allows for. As time goes by, the greater community breaks down into winners and losers and things can turn ugly.

To wit: a continuing economic stagnation of African-American and other minority group neighborhoods; the growing dislike of the police, who are given the job of defending a wholly inadequate status quo; the reciprocated negative feelings displayed by the police (whose own collective identity resembles that of a college fraternity) for those who challenge the system; and outbursts of violence within this disordered yet armed setting – very much in the character of the country’s recently witnessed mayhem.

Thus, it would seem that there is a connection between the ubiquitous institutional begging done through the postal system and the deterioration of U.S. society we are now witnessing. The charitable solicitations that flood American mailboxes are futile efforts to band-aid over a socio-economic affliction.

However, charity is not the answer to American society’s ills, much less those of the world at large. Those ills reflect systemic problems and, in the case of the U.S., a philosophy that denies the reality that humans are social animals who have collective needs. Simply put, the government has, as a matter of perverse principle, abandoned responsibility for its multifaceted community’s welfare.

To address this affliction Americans need to scrap the entire idea of radical individualism and replace it with a community-minded version of social democracy. How likely is that? Well, I would not hold my breath. A lot of individuals are getting rich through the abandonment of the greater community. Yet, Bernie Sanders’s 12 million supporters is (or is it, was) a good sign.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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21 comments for “Why Public Needs Go Begging

  1. Erik
    July 20, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Private charity is important only where the public has not recognized a need, such as foreign aid. All public needs should be publicly funded because then burden is borne by all, and according to ability to pay.

    The reason that public needs go begging is the moral corruption of the people when mass media and elections are controlled by money. Most who are getting by well enough are easily persuaded to use excuses for selfishness, when “everybody else” is doing that, and the mass media supply that illusion, and feed the market for excuses.

    The top excuses are blaming the victim (“the poor can’t learn or are lazy” or “the poor are losers regardless of policy” etc.). By the same means the mass media trick the opportunists to think that with enough lying, cheating, and stealing, they’ll all get rich, so they must cut taxes on the rich and do whatever the rich say. The tyranny of the workplace silences all opposition when people are most in contact. Every financial bubble feeds the dream of greed, and the busts are blamed on the losers.

    The mass media and elections are corrupt because the Constitution provides no protection of these tools of democracy from economic concentrations that did not exist when it was written. Because these essential tools of democracy are already controlled by the most selfish bully-boys the nation can produce, we have no democracy, and no means to restore democracy. We have a primitive tyranny.

    Probably this will not be correctable until the nation is in an economic abyss, surrounded by the enemies produced by its greed. One can imagine peaceful means of restoring democracy from a tyranny, but history has few examples.

    • Erik
      July 21, 2016 at 8:09 am

      When I mention my past charitable efforts for orphans in developing nations, I am often told that this is a bad thing. Those people will maintain that “we” should help the poor in our country “first.” What they mean is that I should help the domestic poor so that they can pay lower taxes.

      I respond with the argument that (1) I can help about 35 times as many orphans in poor countries as in the US (due both to lower costs and lower expectations), and (2) charity is the public’s burden, otherwise the most selfish and wealthy pay the least. This they cannot oppose, but they go on advocating against government support of public needs, to reduce their own taxes.

      Those are the civilized ones. All economic and educational classes literally attacked my efforts to establish a charity school that would sponsor orphans in developing nations. Hillbillies shot at the school several times weekly for years and sent in gangs at night, middle class scoundrels recruited hillbillies attackers so as to steal our buildings, town officials without exception attacked, obstructed, threatened, and even campaigned against us, upper class lawyers and judges denied our basic constitutional rights despite every precedent on our side. We did nothing controversial nor to antagonize anyone, but were under an all-fronts military, political, and legal assault for eight years, with zero redress in four lawsuits all the way to the US Supreme Court three times. The list of their many excuses is astonishing and depressing, and none of those have any basis whatsoever in fact or law. This is due not only to the profound corruption of the people by the mass media and unregulated economy, but also their uniform and profound dedication to destroying the unfortunate for private gain. It is really the ideal of most of America: bully or be bullied.

      • Cal
        July 21, 2016 at 1:52 pm

        Let me give you an example of why Americans might be irate relative to what you saying.

        In my town a church brings in Burmese (Christians) houses and feeds them, pays their medial bills and sponsors them for citizenship. I have a friend who owns an apartment complex where the church rented apartments for them. One of the Burmese children fell down the stairs and suffered severe head injuries and was taken to Duke Hospital for specialist care. The church paid a hundred thousand + dollar medical bill for his care.
        At the same time a young girl who had just gotten out of the US Navy and hadn’t yet gotten a job so was without a health insurance policy when she was diagnosed with cancer. It was up to her family to try and raise money for her treatment which they tried though yard sales, cake bakes. money jars at stores, appeals to church and charity groups and etc.. I lost track of the outcome for her but when last talked to a family member the parents had mortgaged their home, cashed out life insurance policies, used up their savings and gotten the doctors at Duke to waive their fees but were still responsible for all the other cost of her treatment.

        There’s nothing wrong with helping overseas orphans but when a American family compares their plight in a crisis like this with what they see being done for people who aren’t even citizens or long term members of the community or the country they rightly feel some resentment toward all the ‘good people’s charity for these others and toward the US government and health system that doesn’t even help its own.

        • Erik
          July 21, 2016 at 9:07 pm

          Actually we did not plan to bring the orphans here to the US due to excess risks and costs such as you describe. The orphans were to be housed and educated in existing children’s homes overseas by existing organizations, and we planned to sponsor them through the tuition of our private preparatory school, about ten orphans per student. There were no costs to the community whatsoever, and we did no fundraising there.

          It cost no one anything to let us run a school, but they were dedicated to preventing that by all means at every opportunity. It was simply uniform dedication to selfishness across the income and education spectrum, from the local hillbillies to the Supreme Court. No one had to persuade anyone to make trouble for us: just the mention of our charitable purposes was quite enough. That’s America: they must not permit anyone to do what they know they should be doing, or their game of selfishness is over.

          You can read of our experiences in a novel The National Memorial at http://www.johnbarth.net which is fairly close to the facts as I know them, but with names changed.

          • Cal
            July 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

            ” That’s America: they must not permit anyone to do what they know they should be doing, or their game of selfishness is over”>>>>

            Well I totally disagree that America is basically selfish. …billions upon billions of Americans earnings go overseas for hundred of projects.

          • Erik
            July 22, 2016 at 7:53 pm

            Check your facts, Cal. The total of US foreign aid, other than military aid, would not buy one meal a year for the world’s neediest. It’s not a question of what we are told or what we need to believe. The facts are very ugly, but we must accept them. There are almost no gift projects, just loans, and that is not charity.

  2. Zachary Smith
    July 20, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    A lot of individuals are getting rich through the abandonment of the greater community.

    Amen. Those same rich bastards also own most of the government and the media, so citizens are going to get the same constant barrage of propaganda that all is as it should be. Individual Responsibility!

    Since it’s a fact that 50% of the population has an IQ below 100, a considerable number of citizens are buying into the crap they’re hearing.

  3. Realist
    July 21, 2016 at 6:50 am

    It might even be funny if it weren’t so tragic, but so many of the “charities” out hustling for bucks are nothing but scams, cons and frauds, established to retain over 90% of contributions for the contrivers of these criminal enterprises in the guise of “overhead.” These cons are run not only under the premise to help wounded veterans, though those are burgeoning today in an era when the government eagerly ships troopers, along with billions of dollars worth of weaponry, to engage in combat in all corners of the globe and then abandons them to an underfunded, ineffective Veterans Administration when they come home minus their limbs, sensory modalities or motor functions. Some well-known show business types reportedly take in far more lucre for making commercials hyping these “charities” than is dispersed to any so-called “wounded warriors.” Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Some of the biggest name charities have long supported their chief executives with multi-million dollar salaries and other perks while paying out very little to the needy folks they purport to serve. Many of you even have some suggested “fair share” of your paycheck deducted and funneled directly to these folks every month. The needy see less of that than the execs running the scam. But, hey, this is America. It’s all good if it can make money for someone, right? That’s why we’re here, on this earth, to make money by hook or crook, right? That seems to be the message in the air delivered by all the successful people in business and politics, and the voters keep supporting it, so it must be the American ethos, right? If America has seen farther and accomplished more than any other country, it’s because we’ve stood on the throats and crumpled bodies of exploited underclasses. (Apologies to Sir Isaac Newton for the riff on his quotation.)

    • Erik
      July 21, 2016 at 8:27 am

      You are right, there is corruption in some charities, and truly it is outrageous, but there is also a strong market demand for those stories from the selfish public, so the few real cases are never forgotten. The selfish love those stories and so do the unfortunate. Few of the Americans we helped were grateful, and many accused us of somehow making money by giving it away. Some claimed that our money somehow came from them ultimately, although it was all hard-earned and without profit or salaries. There is a massive burden of cynicism that is undeserved. A much greater problem is the skill level in charities where good will is abundant, but that is because skilled Americans do not volunteer when they can profit from the same effort. Please see my comment above.

  4. John Ellis
    July 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

    WEALTH — WHAT IS IT?

    I know it sounds silly, but for the sake of a discussion let us assume that nature functions by intelligent design, and that man has a destiny to establish why wealth is criminal.

    For wealth is the property we own above what is needed to have a comfortable life and for the following reasons personal wealth should be outlawed.

    (1) To own wealth you need deadly force sufficient to protect wealth, which corrupts every aspect of the mind character and personality. For you must be willing to kill anyone and invade any nation that may do harm to your wealth.

    (2) Greed, race disparity and fascism are identical words as they mean the identical thing. Namely, an illusion that you are greater then others, that you deserve more then others and that you deserve to be glorified in direct proportion to your wealth.

    (3) There has never been a nation where the upper half of society did not own all the wealth.

    • John Ellis
      July 21, 2016 at 8:22 am

      (4) Wealth is stolen property belonging to the one billion people now suffering want.

    • Brad Owen
      July 21, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      Wealth, always and everywhere, has its’ origin between the ears of some one person, or group of human beings (only people can conceive the idea of “car” and take “useless” rocks out of the ground and turn them into Fords and Chevys, and this took a lot of DaVinci-type visionaries, scientists, engineers, Tool & Die techs, machinists, assembly-line workers, managers to organize & co-ordinate the work process). The Wealth of ALL Nations everywhere is a well-trained, creative, well-organized Labor Force. Some people may account the car as Wealth (it’s really just a possession). In an even further remove from reality, some people may account the money tokens used to buy & sell the car as the REAL Wealth. All of the ancient slave societies had a hold on the truth; namely, having CONTROL over a population of CAPABLE people (rain forest primitives might be willing to build a car for you; something made out of logs & vines: the Flintstone-mobile) IS having REAL Wealth in hand. The “owning class” has just gotten much slicker at hiding the enslavement of “the local pops”.

  5. Kim Dixon
    July 21, 2016 at 8:31 am

    “… Bernie Sanders’s 12 million supporters is (or is it, was) a good sign.”

    I would suggest that since Sanders’ 12M supporters were wholly unable to recognize their hero as the sellout DNC sheepdog that he was from the very beginning, that that’s a very bad sign. It’s a sign of incredible naivete, and a sign of thoughtless tribalism. All those millions wasted a year, as their righteous rage was deliberately channeled into the hopeless void that is the Democratic Party.

    Polling indicates that around 75% of Sanders fans are already willing to support the warmonger of Wall Street. And that’s even before Sander is done with months more of burnishing over her ugly, right-wing record. Depressing.

    • Brad Owen
      July 21, 2016 at 12:14 pm

      Don’t despair. Those millions CANNOT be herded into supporting the opposite of what they want. Jill Stein is the best fit for their societal aspirations. But the controlled access to the ballot, and the rigged pols, and the rigged voting machines, and the lying press, will lie about who the voters REALLY voted for…maybe now is time for despair.

  6. Cal
    July 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    The population of the US is 320 million–2015.

    20% + of the population are on some form of welfare and government assistance.
    http://www.census.gov/newsroom/…/cb15-97.html
    United States Census Bureau
    May 28, 2015 – About 52.2 million people in the US participated in major means-tested government assistance programs each month in 2012, according to a …..

    Between the 1% -3.2 million at the top and the 20% – 52 million at the bottom 264 million working Americans send their money to the top 1% and the bottom 20%.
    And haven’t seen a wage increase relative to inflation in more than 2 decades.

    Nice racket if Washington can keep it going….personally I would like to see it all crash…this country needs a giant enema to clean out government.

    • John Ellis
      July 21, 2016 at 10:37 pm

      75% of wealth — Top forth of society, the rich ruling class

      25% of wealth — Educated middle-class, the slave drivers

      0% of wealth — Laboring-class, lower half of society, the slaves

  7. Cal
    July 21, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    ” We are also left with a social structure where there are no longer adequate safety nets, because the funding of such things requires a deeper sense of government responsibility to a community than the prevailing individualistic philosophy allows for. As time goes by, the greater community breaks down into winners and losers and things can turn ugly.’…..>>>>

    One reason I am not a liberal or progressive is you all promote the government as responsible for the community without ever mentioning that individuals should also be responsible for themselves.
    It is when too many individuals within a nation ‘shun all personal responsibility’ that communities and even the nation ‘breaks down”.

    I could give a lot of examples of the effects on society, and hence the nation, of individuals not assuming responsibility—-and how they are lulled into thinking they don’t have to be responsible by the liberals promising them a nanny parent state—–but this one will do.

    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarried-childbearing.htm
    Data are for the U.S.
    Number of live births to unmarried women: 1,604,870
    Birth rate for unmarried women: 43.9 births per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 years
    Percent of all births to unmarried women: 40.2%

    The bulk of empirical research indicates that children who grow up with only one biological parent in the home are more likely to be financially worse off and have worse socioeconomic outcomes (even after income differences are taken into account) compared to children who grow up with both biological parents in the home

    Table 1. Percentage of All Births That Were to Unmarried Women, by Race,
    Ethnicity, and Age,
    White (non-Hispanic)
    29.3
    Black (non-Hispanic)
    71.4
    Hispanic
    53.2
    Asian or Pacific
    Islander
    17.0
    American Indian or Alaskan Native
    66.4

    This lack of responsibility even for children they create is one of the MAJOR factors in poverty among all groups in the US You want everyone to have all they need and want?—–then start cleaning up this liberal “culture’ in the US and teaching them what they have to do or not do to have a decent life.
    And while you’re at it start talking about the other ‘real cause’ of neediness in the US–Jobs with a living wage.

    • C&H
      July 21, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      Thank god “the gay” can marry; and, polygamy rules, right?

      Or, is it, (no, it couldn’t possibly be,) “statistically best” to have a man/woman (married in monogamy) ONLY be the deciding “cleaning up” factor for “responsible” parenting?

      How pontifically patriarchal…and frankly, so anti-Constitutional. Econ statistics only reflect existing prejudices. That’s all. EOS.

      (To all who aren’t bigots, sorry for the time intrusion…)

    • Zachary Smith
      July 21, 2016 at 11:38 pm

      Um, the efforts of the rightwingnuts to deny young women both the education and the physical means to prevent pregnancy are also MAJOR factors in the numbers of unmarried mothers.

      Also, rants about “assuming responsibility” absolves the ‘nuts of trying to do anything else creative.

      Something which comes to mind is to pay girls and women – starting at puberty – a cash sum for every year they remain non-pregnant. It would increase a bit every year until … 21? Menopause?

      Lots cheaper than paying for the unwanted babies, unloved children, and unemployable/institutionalized adults.

      Not that the Prison-Industrial Complex would like this idea much….

      • C&H
        July 22, 2016 at 1:14 am

        Or, better yet, cutting the testes for males at birth, until they prove they are financially and emotionally worthy of biologically producing children, say, at age 21? 40? 60? Never? to then get the testes “attached” for appropriate, deemed “worthy” procreation purposes. (Oy-I think Hitler might have endorsed that idea too.)

        How about we, as a society, endorse equal time for men’s “education to become better adults,” instead of incoherent delusions that suggest solutions to the world’s “unwanted babies, unloved children, and unemployable/institutionalized adults” would be solved inevitably by the discrimination/harassment/enslavement of women?

        • Zachary Smith
          July 23, 2016 at 10:31 am

          Males are hard-wired to produce offspring. Education isn’t going to have any substantial influence when it’s up against instinct.

          By the way, next time you want an extreme, why not suggest killing the boy babies, then claim Hitler would like that too.

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