Jesus Never Asked if the Poor Were Deserving
by Pat LaMarche
All across the United States homeless advocates are busily working to prepare for their most hectic season. You might call it the holiday season, the time of cheer — or as Charles Dickens explained in his epic A Christmas Carol — “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
While many homeless advocates would never compare themselves to Charles Dickens they would agree that because people “open their shut-up hearts freely” their work loads get a whole lot heavier. You likely don’t know this because you’ve never heard them complain. And they never will. Many agencies make six or seven months of their budget on what kindness comes their way between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But proof that otherwise uncaring folks suddenly give a damn at Christmas isn’t just found in anecdotal accounts by relief workers. A British study conducted by City University London in 2009 shows that charitable giving increases by 19 percent in the month of December and not because the same people who donate the whole year through give more, but because more people give.
This swelling in the donor ranks among those who customarily aren’t benefactors necessitates that case workers and those who do outreach to the poor dedicate part of nearly every Christmas season work day to coordinating gift giving by those who want to make the holidays special for the needy. While appreciated, it is unfortunate that these same folks can’t be convinced to contribute all year long seeing as the people they help have pretty dreary lives 12 months of the year.
And it’s not just an added compassion for the down and out that this time inspires, this too is an occasion when children in particular matter more. Good people — especially good parents — make an example to others by reaching out to the children of the poor regardless of whether or not the politics they support have actually made these kids’ lives worse over time. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, “Since 2000 the child poverty rate has increased by 18 percent meaning the economic recession of the past few years effectively wiped out all the gains we made in cutting child poverty in the late 1990s.”
There’s a disconnect between the intellectual embrace of this time of giving and the knowledge that it was politics and political action that plopped millions more kids at the doors of our nation’s welfare programs and charities. And there’s a good chance it’s going to get worse. Just this week a story in International Business Times highlighted concerns that because of the Congressional Super Committee’s budget cutting initiatives, “funding for the Women, Infants and Children Program, Head Start and low-income housing are at risk.”
Ironically at this time of year and in the name of Jesus Christ, folks who otherwise point fingers seem to drop the accusations and pick up their check books. For one month, political affiliation and subjective dogma seem to matter little when considering if a child in a homeless shelter is a victim of generational poverty, has parents who are just “lazy” or if their TANF recipient parent uses drugs or alcohol. Nah, this time of year a lot of the same folks that called for drug testing for welfare beneficiaries will still buy a toy for The Salvation Army’s angel tree or the Marines’ Toys for Tots program.
Facts are facts, and the one thing the spirit of the holiday season taught everyone from before Dickens time until long after the congressional super committee finishes it’s work: nowhere in all the celebrations of Christmas did Jesus ever get bogged down in whether the least among us was deserving or not. No, at Christmas time — when so many seek to act like Jesus — loving your neighbor isn’t about whether or not your neighbor has it coming.
Too bad the change of heart that makes homeless shelter providers so busy in December couldn’t last all year and affect the way we vote. If it did, people might continue thinking “of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Or better yet, not think of the poor as below them at all.
Pat LaMarche is the Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. In 2004, she was the U.S. Vice Presidential nominee for the Green Party. During the campaign, she traveled the nation living in homeless shelters and on the streets; the book she wrote about those experiences is Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (Upala Press, 2006). LaMarche writes a regular political column for The Bangor Daily News and contributes to the Huffington Post; hosts The Pulse Morning Show that broadcasts from Maine; and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.