Opinion | Our acts of charity are now acts of justice

By Livia LaMarca, Staff Columnist

In the United States, 37.2 million people fall beneath the poverty line and unfortunately, rates are continuing to increase.

The Declaration of Independence established that every American has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But when your income barely meets what is considered livable in the richest country in the world, there is no pursuit of happiness — only pursuit of survival.

Instead of our government finding ways to improve the country’s social services and welfare, the responsibility of maintaining the livelihood of the impoverished tends to fall into the hands of other citizens. Because America treats its impoverished so poorly, the kind acts of donating items, time and money can no longer be seen as acts of charity, but rather as acts of justice.

According to the People’s Policy Project, the United States underpays its neediest citizens by about $5,000 per person in comparison to the other countries around the world. There is a trend in the data that shows the richer the country, they spend proportionally more on social welfare, and yet America is an obvious outlier.

Smaller rich countries are doing significantly better than us. France spends about 31% of its GDP on social benefits while America spends only 18.7%. The United States seemingly does not care about its poorest citizens. In fact, being poor in such a wealthy country, that has the resources to help alleviate poverty, is in itself an act of injustice.

For example, to help alleviate food insecurity, the government created the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP. However, in reality, this program unfortunately does very little to help. Each person receives an average of just $4 a day, and in order to even receive these disturbingly small benefits, you need to fall around 130% below the federal poverty guidelines.

In order to alleviate an act of injustice, an act of justice is needed. Donating a few extra cans of food to your local food pantry can help make up for what the government isn’t doing. Receiving just $4 per day to eat is hardly liveable, you can hardly afford a box of cereal and some milk with that amount of money. America can’t feed its people properly, so it is up to the common person to do the work for them.

Homeless shelters, food pantries and any other organization that aim to aid the impoverished are no longer just charities, they are setting roots in our neighborhoods and cities to alleviate what our government fails to fix. It is a very good thing that people are willing to give up their time and money to help out the less fortunate, but it shouldn’t be up to us to aid those that our government has wronged.

Nobody should have to live off of kindness to others, but millions of people have to because our government refuses to take responsibility for those who are struggling. Citizens, foundations and corporations scrounged together $450 billion in 2019 for U.S. charities, with a large bulk of it coming straight from the people’s pockets.

Around half of the U.S. population believes that it is the fault of the poor themselves that they are trapped beneath the poverty line. This “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude is incredibly toxic and demeaning. It isn’t the poor person’s fault that they are struggling, it is the government’s inability to provide its citizens with adequate means of survival.

Charity should be used to aid a sudden and easy-to-fix burden. Giving a home-cooked meal to the neighbors who just lost a family member or Christmas presents to a family in need are great examples of charitable acts. Justice is when your act of kindness plays into helping a much bigger issue. Spending time volunteering at a food kitchen or donating blankets and pillows to a homeless shelter are acts of justice — you have taken the government’s failure into your own hands.

Unfortunately, poverty and other societal failures are unlikely to be fixed without the assistance of the government, but our small acts of justice still help in many ways. Just because our $10 donation doesn’t do much to rid the injustices America has inflicted upon the poor, it doesn’t mean you’re not helping. You’ve just committed an act of justice in the face of the American government.

I am fully aware that America doesn’t have an unlimited amount of money to spend to go around fixing every issue. However, this country shouldn’t be prioritizing corporate payouts and helping the rich get richer when its citizens can’t meet their basic needs due to the inescapable cycle of poverty. If the government were to finally step up, it wouldn’t be left to the hands of the few to try and fix these growing injustices.

Livia LaMarca mostly writes about American politics and pop culture. Write to her at [email protected].