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The Charity Band-Aid

By Maria L. Smith

Institutional change remains the resounding theme of public interest discussion across the country, including one conference during Harvard’s Wintersession. Ironically, the charitable organizations that address the effects of systemic problems create a collective barrier to this goal of institutional change. Nonprofits and charities were not created as permanent solutions to institutionalized social and economic ills but rather as mechanisms to alleviate suffering as reforms are undertaken. However, as the number of nonprofits has increased by almost 24 percent and charities by 42 percent in the last decade, broader reforms are largely missing.

I have explored a variety of nonprofit organizations from food banks and shelters to organizations providing education and medical care and, most recently, a group working to bridge the digital divide in my hometown. All of these organizations are addressing symptoms of institutional problems. The irony is that the more successful such organizations are, the less government is pressured to enact meaningful reforms. The more needs these charitable organizations fulfill in society, the more structural change is delayed. In effect, a flourishing system of nonprofits perpetuates the underlying causes of social and economic issues by meeting immediate need.

By no means do I seek to devalue the incredible work of nonprofits. They are, after all, the institutions that keep many families fed and diseases treated. What I fear is that if we continue to view and fund charity as the solution to our society’s gravest ills, we risk a deep-rooted and permanent mode of complacency. We risk the establishment of an unaccountable and unresponsive government. We risk the utter destruction of opportunity in a potentially burgeoning democracy.

When a mother is struggling to feed her children, many Americans see a local food pantry as the solution. In prescribing such an unquestioned and standard response, we risk forgetting what a travesty it is that in 2013—in the United Sates—people go hungry. A food pantry is by no means a solution. Even more, the existence of the food pantry detracts from our ability to see that the problem is deeply entrenched and multi-faceted, rooted in systemic problems plaguing education, development, subsidies programs, transit, and labor. Termed “a moral safety valve” by sociologist Janet Poppendieck, charity creates an illusion of a functioning system. It renders citizens and government more comfortable and consistently replaces public policy. Today we conflate addressing symptoms with solving problems.

Charity and nonprofits are bandages covering wounds. I hope that these bandages do not need to be completely stripped for government to enact concrete and institutional change. Conversely, I hope that these bandages will not turn us into a mummy of superficial alleviations to permanent problems. We must find a way to dispel the present aura of “everything is being taken care of.” No longer should municipalities see shelters as solutions to homelessness. We need real reform of our education, health, legal, and labor systems. For example, using technology-driven “flipped learning” to educate the next generation would require national leadership and financial commitment to expand technology infrastructure, include the internet in every home unit, and implement teacher training. Similarly, a national healthcare overhaul to control costs requires the government’s action rather than charitable funding.

Government that benefits from minimized accountability and institutions that benefit from maximized profits would like to maintain the current system, one in which institutional injustice is bandaged and poverty is normalized. The current model is effective in the sense that it is self-perpetuating and seldom challenged. In fact, many nonprofits are funded in part by the very institutions that profit from the inequities and social ills that underlie so much suffering in our country. We must break this cycle.

The focus of government should be to shape society and institutions that do not perpetuate poverty and injustice but rather create opportunities for people to realize their full potential. I am not calling on government to provide food for the hungry. I am calling on government to enact serious reforms and to shape a system in which mothers have the means to feed their children without a dependence on food banks. We need to eliminate the need for nonprofits and charities. We need institutional change. That is the true test of American benevolence.

Maria L. Smith ’16 lives in Stoughton Hall.

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