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The ribbons and wrist bands we wear indicate support, awareness and the donation of time, money or effort. It is a proud badge of a charity or cause we believe in. It would be difficult to walk down the street in most major cities and not see a homeless person or someone in extreme poverty. That's what anyone can see. However, there are many others living in poverty that we don't see; many of them children. Some in the community suggest we let churches and charitable organizations help those in need. Lots of places offer food and shelter but most are crowded, underfunded, understaffed and lacking in space and supplies. Many poor people are turned away as they can't keep up with demand. In a country with such wealth this is sad situation.

It's easy to suggest a story in our mind of how a poor person came to be that way, some of the stories plausible, some are real but some are simply urban legends. There's the "I met a homeless person once and they told me that homeless people like being homeless." Myth. Generally, poor people are believed to be reaping the results of 'bad life choices'. The person is a drug addict. They just didn't try hard enough. Why do we like Will Smith in Pursuit of Happiness? He ultimately succeeds in overcoming poverty. We all cheer him on and then tell our children, "See? In America if you try hard you succeed." And that is when we start lying to them.

The welfare statistics indicate that most people are NOT lazy moochers trying to work the system. Of course, some are, but many people receiving assistance are also working at a job. Some are service members and veterans. They simply are not paid enough to keep up with rising costs of housing and day to day living expenses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 146 million Americans are either "poor" or "low income". 49% of all SNAP participants are children. In total, 76% of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 16% go to households with disabled persons, and 9% go to households with senior citizens (http://www.snaptohealth.org). Poverty affects people from a range of society. Many of these people would go hungry without assistance. Charity is one source of assistance and it's a beautiful thing. It is heartwarming that other humans take time, effort and money from their own reserves and help those less fortunate. We don't have Dickensian debtors prison which is a good thing. But we still have poor people. I could discuss the many reasons for why but my goal here is to express why we should handle poverty in a different way than charity.

poverty graph

Mark Zuckerburg and his wife donated $500 million to charity. Sounds like a lot. And it is. It's a great gift and he didn't have to do it but let's put that in perspective. If you earn $30K a year and you want to make an equivalent donation (donation to income ratio)you would donate $150. That's all. Not a lot. Most of us can afford to donate this amount without a negative impact on our budget. According to several of the largest charitable foundations, the average percentage a person donates of his or her adjusted gross income is 3 to 5%. - See more at: http://www.financialsamurai.com/the-average-percent-of-income-donated-to-charity/#sthash.NLPuuHL1.dpuf. The difference is Zuckerburg is worth $9.6 billion so that donation was .5%. I repeat. It was a nice donation and he did not have to do it. I hope he continues to give back to the community.

So what is the problem with charity? Charity has such a feel good connotation and definition. We are helping when we are charitable. We are sharing when we give to charity. All admirable motivations and I hope you contribute to charity and continue to do so. Buying a person lunch when you know they can't afford it is a good thing. Bringing over a home cooked meal to someone who is house bound is great. Consider, though, what happens the next day? You brought them dinner yesterday. Is someone else going to bring them dinner tonight? What about tomorrow? They are still disabled. They will be hungry again tomorrow. Is there a plan for that? It's not your problem. You have your own life to live. Of course, I don't blame you. I am busy- we are all busy. We can't give at the expense of ourselves and others.

This is the flaw in charity. It's inconsistent. Food banks get a lot of donations around Thanksgiving and Christmas but what about the rest of the year? The donations go down because people are busy and aren't thinking about holidays. Poor people are poor every day. Food insecurity is a problem. One day you set a good meal in front of your children because there happened to be a lot of extra cans at the church charity but the next day not so much.

The same is true of rent and utilities. A gift of money, a donation, a charitable act may get the rent paid this month, but what about next month? When the land lord comes around will the single mother or senior citizen have the rent money? Maybe.

Public assistance is not entirely consistent but it is much more reliable to a poor person than a gift from church members or the food bank on the corner. Also, not all people have the same needs. Public assistance accounts for this. Charity does not. Charity is 'whatever is left over'. Charity is what others don't need at the moment and it may not match what is needed. Some children may need new shoes but the local TV station is having a coat and jacket drive. Warm body but cold feet.

Instead of fighting and arguing with and accusing poor people of bad life choices and telling them to get help from a charity perhaps we should be working on two things, solving why people are poor in the first place and providing a reliable safety net with procedures to prevent fraud.

Perhaps charity doesn't just begin at home perhaps it also begins in the community but more importantly it begins with employment. Are you, as CEO, providing your employees with a living wage? Do you know what it is for the community that your employees come from? Earning a living with a living wage provides security and consistency. What can we do? Several things.

-Start with making sure you don't spread rumors and myths. Do you really know what your neighbor's cousin's sister's daughter does with her welfare check? Or are you just spreading misinformation?

-Learn how improved social assistance has become, how fraud is the lowest it has ever been.

-Talk with the people you work with about how your company can improve the lives of employees.

-If you are a policy maker in your company consider the impact of employees with a decent, living wage on your own business. Would you like to grow your business? Can your employees afford the product you make?

-Take time to think about what you could do to help your community.

-Support politiicians who enhance social programs instead of those that cut fundng to SNAP or to the VA, for example.

It's possible.

Deborah Baron

Deborah Baron

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