Coffee heat rising

When Giving Goes Awry

Baker at Man vs. Debt hit the gong at several blog carnivals this week with his rumination on the various excuses not to give money to charities. While the article is well written and I respect the passion with which his readers respond, the enthusiasm for giving away hard-earned wages escapes me.

I rarely donate cash to any charities or churches. There’s a reason for that: charitable giving warped my father’s psychology, influencing his entire life for the not-necessarily-better, and it permanently alienated his two older brothers from each other. Effectively, it destroyed his mother and his family. Because of his experiences, he would never allow my mother to teach me religion or to drag me to church, and he would not permit her or himself to donate to anything.

At the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother inherited a substantial sum from her father, who had accumulated a small fortune in freighting buffalo hides out of Oklahoma to market in Texas. By the time my father came on the scene, rather late in her life, she was pretty well set: she owned two houses and a commercial property in Fort Worth, and she had money in the bank.

My father was a change-of-life baby: the youngest of his two brothers was 18 years older than he. At the time he was born, his father ran off, abandoning the middle-aged wife to care for the new baby herself. Her two other sons were, by this point, out of the house and launched on their own lives. One became a ranch hand, running cattle in west Texas; the other went to work at a Fort Worth dairy. Both men had their own families, with all the concerns that entails.

Over the next decade or so, my grandmother became engaged with an alternative Christian church that since then has evolved into the mainstream. Neither brother paid much attention to what was going on, although my father realized something was awry by the time he was about ten years old. She was quietly giving money to this church: large amounts of money. The church was gratefully accepting it and offering exactly nothing in return.

The two older brothers learned about this only after it was way too late. They found out when the county seized their mother’s home for unpaid taxes. She couldn’t pay her property taxes, because she had no money. She was flat broke, having given every penny of her fortune to the church.

Did this make her a better person? No. Did it contribute to her personal happiness? Obviously not. Did it make her holy in the eyes of God? Maybe. God didn’t do much to keep a roof over her head, though. Nor did He prevent creditors and the government from taking away what little she had left. She lost both houses and the gas station, and everything she had ever had was gone. There was no help for her from any direction. She died in desperate penury, without a word from the worthies of the church that had taken all her money.

My cattleman uncle blamed his brother, my other uncle, for this state of affairs. He felt that his brother should have been keeping an eye on their mother, since he was the one who stayed in Fort Worth. The two men fought, and after that they never spoke to each other again.

My father was a little boy, but he was old enough to understand that his home was gone, his mother was reduced to poverty, and a substantial inheritance that should have supported her and all three of her sons had evaporated into the coffers of a church. He determined that he would earn back the entire amount that she had lost.

And he did. By the time he reached his goal, forty years later, the dollar amount wasn’t very much, and because he wasn’t an educated man, he didn’t understand that to match the buying power of what she lost, he would have had to save over seven times as much. But that didn’t matter: in his mind he’d regained her losses. As soon as he reached his goal, he retired, imagining he would be set for life.

To do it, he

dropped out of school in the 11th grade;
lied about his age to join the navy;
worked like an animal all his life;
spent ten grim years of his life, my mother’s life, and my life in a godforsaken outpost in the Arabian desert;
pinched every penny that came his way;
based his marriage and his entire life on the accumulation of savings;
lived a miser’s life right up until the time he died.

To say he was a frugal man is to understate. Saving money became an obsession, and he focused all of our lives on it. Because he didn’t really understand money well, he made some serious mistakes, topmost among them investing all he had in insurance securities, which during the 1950s were returning at a rate of 30 percent. He didn’t realize a) that investments should be diversified, and b) no investment that was earning that much could possibly last long. When the bottom fell out of the insurance securities market, he lost almost everything—just as he stood at the verge of making his goal.

He did eventually earn the lost savings back, but this fiasco added another ten years of hard labor to his financial plan, and it pinched his personality even more than it was already pinched. Overall, he fared pretty well, considering that he had no education and only the opportunities he managed to wrest from life by main force. He kept us in the middle class, and he left about a hundred thousand dollars to his wife, my son, and me.

But his character was changed by his mother’s charity: warped and crabbed. And he was effectively left alone as a teenager, his two brothers spun off like asteroids in deep space. What remained of his family fell apart, and he spent his entire life trying to put what he thought was his birthright back together.

And that’s why I don’t give to churches.

To my mind, charity begins at home. If I give any money away, it’s to my son, who has returned the favor by growing into a decent man. By keeping myself off the public dole, I save the taxpayer a great deal of money.  And let us bear in mind that what I do to keep myself off the dole—mostly teaching—is itself a form of charity: I educate young people for a small fraction of what anyone with comparable skills doing a comparable amount of work with comparable management responsibility would earn in business. She who gives away her time, energy, and skill for the public good donates something worth a great deal more than cash.

. . . to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Ethical? Charging what the (charitable) market will bear…

Middle of last week, along came the following announcement in the community college e-mail:

Kewl, eh? For ten bucks you get an artsy-craftsy bowl (potential Christmas present!), a light meal, and some general socializing. And you donate to a good cause.

I asked La Maya and Kathy if they’d like to drop by this thing by way of entertaining ourselves and picking up a lunch. Kathy couldn’t get away from work, and La M had other things to do. But, said she, the local paper reported that this event was happening at AJs’ stores, too. She gathered the one in our part of town was hosting it on Saturday. She was busy, but Kathy thought she could make the endless drive from the hinterlands where she lives to the central part of the city.

So during the week when I was in the vicinity of that AJ’s store I checked, and yea verily: Bowls for Charity on Saturday.

Fortunately, Kathy changed her mind at the last minute. But that notwithstanding, yesterday morning I drove down to the store to check out the bowls.

A cluster of society wives was buzzing around the table where a bunch of young volunteers were peddling the nonprofit’s wares. As one of the women selected an unexceptional bowl, the amateur saleslady said, “That’ll be twelve dollars!”

Oh? And BTW, not a cauldron of soup nor a loaf of bread to be seen…

“So,” said I, “these bowls are $10 at the community colleges but $12 here?”

The young girl behind the table looked puzzled—and young, very young. She was probably a high-school kid. She had no idea.

Annoying. The presumption that just because you happen to shop at AJ’s—or because you would choose to go to that site after you read about the event in the newspaper—you therefore can be charged more for less: that’s annoying.

It’s every bit as annoying as the presumption that just because I wear a pair of Costco jeans into the local Saks, I can’t afford to shop there.

Is it unethical? I don’t know. Vaguely, I feel it could be. Why, I couldn’t say. It just feels like a gentle rip-off.

People on food stamps shop at AJ’s, believe it or not. One afternoon, before the Department of Economic Security started issuing debit cards in place of paper food stamps, I saw a man roll an entire cart full of healthy, nonjunk food up to a cash register and pay for it with food stamps. Should he have to donate an extra two bucks for charity (and not get the soup or the bread) just because he chooses to spend his dole at a store that stocks more real food than junk food?

If all you want is to pick up a handmade bowl or two, for twelve bucks you’d do better to wait for the next street fair. Or visit the excellent artists’ and crafters’ consignment shop directly across the street from that AJ’s.

If you want to donate to a worthy cause? Frankly, I think you’d do better to send money directly.

So, what cause would your purchase or donation support? Paz de Cristo is one of the most venerable soup kitchens in Phoenix’s suburban East Valley. Year in and year out, it has distributed hot meals to the poor, every single evening of the year.

It’s the offspring of St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, which for as many years in and out has supported it generously. Along about last August, in the depths of the worst recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, rel=”nofollow”St. Timothy’s decided to drop that support, abruptly cutting $300,000 in funding and throwing the charity to the mercy of private donors.

No indication of any wrongdoing on the part of Paz de Cristo was offered as an excuse for this moment of Christian charity. Instead, the church said that tithes had dropped off so sharply (could this mean something?) that it would no longer support the soup kitchen.

Hmm. What would Jesus do?