In the New Year, Charity Towards All, With Exceptions

The Ann Arbor Chronicle capped off its year with an essay on panhandling. This sent me off on some reflections about the whole charity and giving thing, especially but not entirely with regard to panhandling.  So please bear with a slight diversion from my relentless march across the Library Lot.

First, some personal experiences.  Though I usually ignore panhandlers, here are a few times I was caught.

1. Cart man One day a year or so ago, I had just loaded my car with groceries from Kroger and was heading, somewhat tired and dispirited (a Michigan drippy gray day) to put away the cart when a white man of middle years stepped out and respectfully asked if he couldn’t put that away for me.  I accepted with gratitude, but when he had my cart in hand, he asked for money.  He said “I’m hungry”.  I suggested that we should go together back into Kroger and buy the wherewithal for a sandwich.  He said he could eat better and cheaper at McDonald’s.  At this point, rather disgusted, I pulled out a couple of dollars, whereupon he said “I have a friend”.  While I was considering this, a Kroger employee stepped up and warned him off.  Apparently he had been making a career of such approaches and they had posted someone in the parking lot.

2. Implied threat Some years ago my husband and I were cutting across the UM campus from State Street to the South University area when a young very tall black man suddenly appeared and demanded “money for gas”.  It was evident that no was not an answer, so we forked over several dollars and escaped.

3. Piteous Several years ago my husband gave money to a panhandler on State Street.  She was an older white woman who stepped up to us with a pitiful expression and a bleated “Money for foooood!” appeal.  Later she was featured in the Ann Arbor News as someone who was living on a retirement income and had been able to supplement her income nicely in this way.  She was not starving.

4. Performance artist Over a decade ago I was walking south on Detroit from Zingerman’s when a black woman in her 40s approached me with a distraught look and a frank appeal for help.  She told a confused story about her son in Grand Rapids and her need to get a bus ticket to see him, but she had to get to a friend who would help and she had no transportation.  I took her to my car, parked nearby, and drove her to a house on the west side, but she asked me to wait.  She emerged to say that her friend was not there or had no money.  So I was driving her toward the bus station when she said “Do you have any bottles (to sell)?  I truly had no money with me so I drove to an ATM and withdrew $20, then dropped her at the station.  She kissed my cheek with a “God bless you” and I drove away with a tear in my eye.   Later I read in the Ann Arbor Observer that she had approached a number of people in the general Kerrytown area, even going into office and commercial buildings, and had conned quite a few of them.  She was very good.

(Note: I include the race of the individuals because that is part of what we react to when confronted by a stranger.  I am not making a statement about any group.)

So why do we give money away?  What are sometimes called “charitable donations” fall into a number of categories.

1. Because we feel obligated (social pressure) I’d say that many political and religious donations fall into this category.  I’ll give to a candidate whom I support on the principles, but often also simply because I’m expected to.

2. Simple self-interest Some nonprofit organizations fulfill a goal or need that we hold personally.  For example, when I give to a land conservancy or an environmental organization, it is because those things matter to me personally.  And many donations are literally a ticket to opportunity.  For example, by giving to the Michigan Theatre or the Matthei Botanical Gardens/Arboretum, I get information on events and discounts.

3. Value received Some donations are earned because of entertainment value or social events.  Lots of charitable fundraisers are based on this principle – eat dinner with interesting people!  Listen to music!    Or individuals provide the entertainment value through performance or sheer personality.  I’ll always give to buskers because they bring me joy.  (Wish they were legal in downtown Ann Arbor, have not figured out why not.)  And Shakey Jake became a phenomenon in his own right, beloved by many.

4. The greatest of these is charity I believe that true charity stems from our sense of common humanity, empathy, and compassion. This is a phenomenon also referred to as social altruism and it is thought to be hard-wired in us.  Even little children display concern when another person seems distressed.  It is, in my opinion, one of the finer aspects of being human.

So here’s the problem with panhandling.  It manipulates and distorts this natural empathetic impulse to help another. By doing so, it may influence our learned behavior toward others and diminish the natural empathy that we each feel toward another in need.

Consider my experiences.  OK, the campus experience was more extortion than request, but it had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the stereotype of young black males as threatening.  Too many such experiences and it is difficult to respond to another such individual with a free open feeling of common humanity.

In each of the other experiences, there was a cynical manipulation of social feeling.  Cart man appeared to be doing me a favor (an apparent altruistic act) which helped to establish a social connection.  That was then exploited.  Piteous pretended real need when she was really apparently just supplementing a decent income.  And the Performance Artist very skillfully worked on my empathy to establish a deep human connection.  (I’m considered fairly bright, but imagine driving a con artist to your ATM!)

Is it right to exploit another’s altruism?  I don’t agree with Tate Williams of Camp Take Notice, quoted in the Chronicle story to say that we are all panhandlers.  Yes, in ordinary human interaction we ask others to trust us and help us in various ways, but that trust is a precious and fragile thing.  Panhandling for money that is not really needed to support life is in a sense an abridgment of that trust.  I believe that one of the problems in our country today is a loss of trust in and empathy for others, especially those who are not like us. False demands foster cynicism and distrust.

And yet – we must support the needs of those whom we (perhaps euphemistically) call the less fortunate.  How can we do this without being conned and manipulated?

Here’s my solution: Give as generously as you can afford to local agencies that provide services for basic survival and well-being.  My personal choices are Food Gatherers and the Shelter Association.

Food Gatherers is a highly effective organization that has become a major part of our social safety net.  I’ve participated in studies they did on hunger and have seen some of their operations. You can be sure that your donation is used to its very best outcome.  (And as nice as it is to donate a few cans of food, a check is best.)

The Shelter Association of Washtenaw is a coordination center for many services that aid the homeless and near homeless.  At the Delonis Center, they offer hot meals, health services, mental health and substance abuse assistance, and many other direct services and referrals to non-residents as well as temporary residence for a few lucky souls.  (I was one who wanted a larger shelter originally, but oh well.)

I feel better since I sent in my year-end checks.  It’s not too late for you to do the same, though you’ll have to wait till 2012 for the tax deduction.  Happy New Year.

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