Charities in Dane County attempt to play a pivotal role in uplifting impoverished communities. Despite having altruistic intentions, however, the organizations that seek to eradicate various problems in Madison ultimately are unable to implement enduring solutions.
The United Way of Dane County amassed over $18 million in 2020 to fund housing, education and health services for low-income residents. During the pandemic, United Way implemented the Dane County COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery Fund. This effort served over 190,000 individuals and families and included providing over 155,000 meals to those in need and helping almost 2,000 individuals pay rent. This kind of charitable work changes the lives of many through critical support and resources.
Despite these meaningful efforts to provide relief, however, poverty still increased in 2020. This indicates a need for systemic changes beyond charitable support to address the root causes of economic inequality.
Abundant donations are being funneled into helping less privileged individuals, but destitution in Dane County still remains a pressing issue. Just under 10% of the population lives under the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. With no permanent solution in sight, the Madison community will continue to perpetuate inequality.
One of the best examples of charity unable to address the root causes of poverty is the Empty Stocking Club. During the holiday season, Dane County raises money to provide Christmas toys to local children in low-income families in the greater Madison area. This year, donations are already nearing $85,000 dollars. The holiday season often experiences an increase in donations, specifically toward toys for children.
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Charity and raising money for Christmas gifts helps low-income families during the holiday season. All children deserve to feel the joy of receiving gifts on Christmas. There is no doubt that charities like this one play a crucial role in promoting the happiness and well-being of several individuals.
Policy solutions and charitable donations are not mutually exclusive. But these temporary, “feel-good” contributions are unable to fully address the real causes of poverty. Unfortunately, impoverished communities will still be impoverished after this holiday season charity drive comes to an end.
In fact, charities like this one can obscure viewpoints and cause people to accept the injustices that preserve poverty. Some philanthropists believe that they are mitigating poverty when donating to certain charities, when really, they are simply masking the problem.
Despite having respectable intentions, charities like the Empty Stocking Club uphold the cyclical nature of poverty in Dane County. Philanthropy can have important effects on society but raising money for Christmas gifts targets symptoms and not causes. In turn, charities like this one serve as a substitute for real injustice.
For example, charities can make donations to children and families, stock food pantries or provide temporary shelter for the unhoused, but without policy changes, poverty, homelessness and hunger will never cease to exist. Something else must be done, and it starts with tackling root causes.
It is important to note that there is nothing inherently wrong with charity. In fact, there are numerous benefits to donating to charitable organizations. They aim to build up impoverished and suffering communities while promoting health, happiness and the wellbeing of individuals in need.
For example, many charities are doing important, life-saving work. Homeless shelters in Madison are partly funded by charitable organizations, and without donations, many residents would have nowhere to go. Homeless shelters are necessary in an environment as harsh as Wisconsin’s, but shelters on their own are not enough to solve the complex, systemic issue of homelessness.
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These temporary solutions work on a case by case basis, but Wisconsin must do better for its impoverished communities. For instance, raising Wisconsin’s minimum wage would drastically cut poverty at the systemic level.
Studies show welfare programs fulfill a role in alleviating poverty that charity by itself cannot match. This is why it is discouraging that about 70% of Americans feel sympathetic to the poor, but many still find welfare programs ineffective, according to the Cato Institute.
Sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin Dr. Jason Nolen said Americans may be more willing to support charity than government programs through tax dollars for feelings of personal fulfillment.
“Giving to charity can result in increased self-esteem, receiving praise and recognition, heightened social status, strengthening social ties and business relationships, and positive public relations for one’s business,” Nolen said.
An individual does not receive the same emotional and social benefits from paying taxes, even if tax dollars fund programs that are more efficient in addressing specific issues. For example, government sponsored medicaid assists over one million low-income Wisconsin residents in receiving accessible healthcare. This program effectively fights systematic racial and income disparities
Further, other philanthropists, especially those that are more affluent, would rather give to charity than accept higher taxes because they get to decide which issues the money is being used to address. Even elites with selfless intentions have the power to influence charitable efforts.
Ideally, affluent people would support funding a local state or federal administration that directs their money towards helping the most people. But many donors direct their charity toward purposes that align with their own moral beliefs, even if it does not assist the greater good.
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In essence, this upholds elitism and leaves poor communities in poverty. When charity replaces welfare in addressing social problems, then those who donate the most money will have more influence in determining which problems are addressed. This furthers the cyclical and systematic nature of income inequality and poverty.
Ultimately, charity is somewhat contradictory. Charities and social organizations have benefited millions of people across America. But they can also perpetuate inequality by disguising the roots that could help determine reliable solutions.
Government programs and charities in Wisconsin can maximize effectiveness by working cooperatively with one another. Charitable organizations can find new ways to defend and support government funded programs. This way, welfare and donations can provide broad, long-term support for as many people as possible.
Children should not have to worry about not receiving toys for the holidays, but perhaps more crucially, they should not have to experience the poverty that put them there in the first place.
Abbey Handel ([email protected]) is a freshman studying journalism and political science.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect United Way of Dane County’s charity initiatives.