August 31, 2004

Logic and Social Justice

There are a number of ways of thinking about social justice issues. For example:

  • Value: No one should go hungry.
  • Observation: Here are some people who will go hungry if something isn't done.
  • Action: Let's feed them.

This is the sort of logic that builds soup kitchens and food banks. Here's another way:

  • Value: No one should go hungry.
  • Observation: There are people in our society who do go hungry.
  • Action: Let's build a society in which no one goes hungry.

Now, this is an admirable idea, on the face of it. But how do we go about building such a society? Practically speaking, we hold rallies and protests and put up posters so that everyone knows that there are people in our society that go hungry. And we lobby congressman and we circulate petitions and we try to get out the vote in an attempt to get the government to make sure that no one goes hungry. Mostly we talk a lot, and the government collects a lot of money that goes to support a massive bureaucracy that provides foodstamps to people who would otherwise go hungry.

Now, I'm not against such a safety net. We're a wealthy country, and we can afford it. But I'll point out that the logic is somewhat impersonal. We're no longer thinking of specific hungry individuals, but of hungry individuals as a class. And the action we take to serve them doesn't feed anyone directly; it's all aimed at getting someone else to do the actual work.

The real problem with this logic is that it leads to magical thinking. "We protested and lobbied and canvassed, and the hungry got fed! Wow!"

There's a third way of thinking about social justice, one of I've been noticing more and more lately, which follows from the second way:

  • Value: No one should go hungry.
  • Observation: There are people in our society who do go hungry.
  • Further Observation: We've been protesting and lobbying and canvassing, and they are still hungry.
  • Action: This must be somebody's fault; I blame the greedy multinational corporations!

I often detect this way of thinking in screeds about greedy multi-national corporations; it betrays a basic misunderstanding about the world. There's an implicit assumption in the above that everything would be perfect in the world if only they (You know, them. You've talked about them yourself, I'm sure.) would stop wrecking things for the rest of us. And this, of course, is nonsense.

Meanwhile, other people go on building and funding soup kitchens, food pantries, half-way houses and the like. People like the folks at Modest Needs:

Modest Needs is a tax exempt, grass-roots charitable organization dedicated to a simple proposition: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Since May 2002, the active members of the Modest Needs community have been pooling their pocket change and investing it in the future of working families.

These families have asked for our help because the burden of a small, unexpected expense has proven too great for them to bear on their own.

To date, Modest Needs has kept 1264 working families from entering the public welfare system by remitting payment for $236,215.71 worth of unexpected expenses on behalf of the families we've had the funding to assist.

Those expenses have ranged from the fee for a GED test to the bill for an auto repair to the cost of burying a stillborn child.

Modest Needs' average grant is just over $180.00 per family. But because our grants keep working families working, they've now returned more than $7.7 million in earned income to the pockets of families who have remained self-sufficient because of them.

At Modest Needs, we think our dollars make more sense when they keep families working.

I must admit that I have not researched Modest Needs extensively; they could be snake oil salesmen. But I doubt it; when I went to their web site and looked at their Giving FAQ, I discovered that they don't simply hand out money; they verify the need and they make sure the money goes where it's supposed to. More than that, all of their financial data is publicly available on their web site. That's the kind of transparency I like to see in a charitable organization.

Why don't you go take a look?

Posted by Will Duquette at August 31, 2004 05:21 PM

Deb said:

While I like the philosophy of the organization, I find it amazing that they can function on a long term, continuing basis with no fundraising dollars spent. Even with minimal overhead, a viable non-profit almost has to do fundraising and advertising to remain "competitive" for the donated dollar market--unless they have a fair sized endowment to keep them afloat. Just an observation.....

Will Duquette said:

If Modest Needs manages to survive, I think it will be due to word-of-mouth and the Internet, rather than traditional ways of advertising. A charitable organization that can demonstrate that it's really helping people and that the money you give is virtually all going to help people is nearly irresistable to somebody like me or Jane. And they make it really easy to sign up to give a little automatically every month.

Not to give the wrong impression--Jane and I haven't at this point given them any money. But we're thinking about it.

And hey, suppose the concept doesn't work out in the long run for lack of funding--they will still have helped a lot of people through a lot of tough spots, and they'll be able to point to each and every one. Job well done, as far as I'm concerned.