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Christmas Charity Porn in an Age of Inequality

Posted on Friday, December 7th, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Author: s.e. smith

The time of year has come for the general population to be reminded that homeless people, disabled children, and other people who have ‘fallen on hard times’ exist. Bell-ringers torment shoppers in urban areas with their demands for money, heart-warming stories fill the newspaper, and shelters suddenly swell with volunteers eager to do their duty by the less fortunate. It is the time for holiday charity, for a warm bath of pity porn, to be followed by a return to normal after the tree has been taken down and the wrapping paper bundled up and taken to the recycling along with the boxes from everyone’s electronic toys and cheap plastic goodies.

Starting in early November, the United States begins to bubble over with charitable spirit. Food drives are held in grocery stores, post offices, and local businesses, while toy drives are organised to collect things for children who won’t have much to celebrate during ‘the holiday season,’ by which organisers mean ‘Christmas,’ because it is the only holiday they actually recognise. Meanwhile, people are encouraged to ‘adopt’ families of poor children in order to shower them with presents in an act of do-gooding that allows them to ‘share the holiday spirit.’

At no point are people encouraged to ask themselves why some people are ‘less fortunate.’ The holidays become an orgy of celebrating those who are known as the ‘deserving poor,’ people who simply accidentally became embroiled in poverty through no fault of their own—in contrast with those benefits scroungers, welfare queens, and other leeches sucking from the government teat instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and getting to work.

Yet, this is no accident of fate, no happenstance, no random deal of the cards that leaves some people poor and struggling to survive in a cold, harsh winter while others are snug at home around the tree, drinking eggnogs and watching A Christmas Story. This is the result of institutional and structural factors that contribute to inequality, and a growing gap between wealthy, poor, and surviving in the US.

One in four workers in the US is employed in low-wage work, and these same workers took to the streets multiple times in November to demand fair, living wages. These same workers are the ones who make the nation run, while their multibillion dollar employers rake in annual profits, providing huge payouts to their executives and shareholders. They aren’t poor because of an accident, but because of the deliberate reinforcement of structures that keep some people in a state of enforced poverty, while others are allowed to make profits from their suffering.

It isn’t an accident that women, particularly women of colour, tend to be more poor overall. Nor is it coincidental that lower education levels result in correspondingly lower wages, and that more and more people in the United States are having difficulty accessing higher education. It is not a happenstance that fewer workplace protections are in place for low-wage workers, that the federal minimum wage is artificially low, that some workers, like home care providers, have virtually no protections at all.

Those who allow themselves to think of some individuals as ‘the deserving poor’ draw a bright and artificial line between two groups of poor people, but more importantly than that, they repeat the myth that poverty is simply something that happens. By extension, this myth perpetuates the idea that poverty is something that will always be part of society—should always be part of society—because it reflects inescapable factors that can’t be addressed. Some people are just poor.

And other people can rush to their rescue every winter, forgetting the fact that they exist most of the time without acknowledgment in the interest of feeling good about themselves during a season that has become an orgy of consumerism and capitalism elevated to dizzying heights. In a way, contributing to charity has become the penance done by people who feel obscurely guilty over the excesses of Christmas, and want a reason to be able to celebrate guilt-free. Rather than challenging the institutions that create and reinforce poverty, they drop some coins in a can rattled by a man in a bright red suit (representing a notoriously anti-gay charity) by the door of the grocery store, and consider their responsibilities fulfilled.

The troubling reliance on charity to provide social services in the US is a direct outgrowth of the rise of charity culture. There was a time, not that long ago, when the services provided by charities were believed to be the responsibility of government agencies dedicated to the health and welfare of residents. Over time, particularly during the Presidency of George W. Bush, this began to shift, with the government slashing services and expecting charities to pick up the slack.

Many did. Some even took government funds; Bush was particularly fond of faith-based charities, despite the fact that some forced people to receive religious materials and instruction before they could receive aid. Others struggled with an influx of new clients and new needs created by the fall of government agencies formerly responsible for providing assistance, and with a change in social attitudes about what people ‘deserved’ in terms of assistance and aid.

The rollbacks of government assistance created a culture in which the ‘deserving poor’ shrunk radically, because citizens assumed that if the government wasn’t providing a service, it wasn’t necessary. And that people complaining about lack of access to a service, or difficulty surviving without it, were simply shiftless and lazy, demanding more than their fair share from society. Charities became even more careful and selective about which stories they presented to the public in appeals for assistance, which only served to underscore the problem, narrowing the idea of who deserves charity even further.

And with the economic collapse of 2008 came an abrupt drop in funding to charities, paired with even more cuts to government aid. At the precise moment that more and more people needed help as a direct consequence of capitalism and the dominance of society by corporate interests, fewer of those people could receive help. The tales of woe paraded before the public in November and December became even more pitiful each year, and the examination of why so much of the population was struggling became ever-more superficial.

It’s curious that poor people evidently only exist in November and December in the US, and that during this period they should be showered with a bounty of guilt-induced but not necessarily practical or useful help, before being discarded. There is no followup here, no interest in hacking apart the tangle of structural violence forcing people into poverty and pinning them there; there’s just the purchase of an indulgence so people can hurry along to the tree-lighting ceremony on the town green.

Where is the rage, here? Where is the justice? And why is the US still relying on charity to provide critically needed services?

Front page photo by Sharif Zu’bi (c).

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