New Worlds: Public and Private Charity

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Up until now we’ve been talking about generosity in a fairly direct, person-to-person sense: building social bonds with your neighbor, welcoming the traveler at your gate. But when generosity comes up in modern, industrialized society, we often mean it in the more institutionalized sense of charitable giving.

Which isn’t to imply that charity of that sort is a recent invention. Far from it! One of the fundamental cohesive functions of society is for those with more to help those with less. How this operates and how much it’s prioritized may fluctuate, but some concept of mutuality is pretty much always woven into the fabric of a given culture — so let’s take a look at that now.

Religion has frequently been up to its elbows in the business of charity. If worshippers are expected to tithe money to their local religious community, some of that goes toward supporting religious personnel and infrastructure (i.e. clergy and worship sites), but a non-trivial amount is often earmarked for charitable works. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, possibly educating the illiterate . . . maybe with a side order (or a main course) of proselytization, depending on the religious institution, but charitable efforts just the same.

This isn’t just a Judeo-Christian idea, though I imagine that’s where many of my readers have encountered it. Monasteries often engage heavily in this kind of work, and that’s true of the Buddhist sort as well as the Christian. In the past such efforts were usually confined to nearby targets, simply because of the logistical hurdles, but with modern travel it’s also become common to see religiously mediated charitable outreach all around the world.

Certain groups are common recipients for this type of charity. Widows and orphans are proverbial examples of groups in need, because in patriarchal societies they’re considered dependents of the male head of the family. (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of charity oriented toward helping widowers.) More than a few Christian institutions have also taken as their mission the reformation of prostitutes, getting them off the street and into a better situation — or at least one that’s more socially acceptable, whether that be a proper marriage, an honest trade, or a new life as a nun. Men are more likely to receive charity when they’re disabled veterans of a war.

As you can see, there’s often a heavy moral dimension to this kind of thing. Certain people get evaluated as being more worthy or in need of aid, based on circumstances that have nothing to do with the economic numbers involved. That’s not surprising, when charity is mediated through religious institutions (which are, after all, in the business of morality). But the moral dimension often stays even when the charitable institution in question isn’t religious.

We have a lot of those nowadays, as the centrality of religion to society as a whole has declined and the scale of that society has grown. It was one thing to organize parish relief when your parish was the center of your social and economic world; it’s another thing entirely when you’re living in a city of millions. The same factors I’ve mentioned before, about how certain systems only work when the social fabric is tightly woven, apply again here. As a result, a lot of our charity now goes through two other channels: governments, and non-governmental organizations.

In theory, governmental aid is usually driven purely by numbers, without too much concern for who’s morally deserving. In practice . . . I don’t know if it’s different in other countries, but the United States puts a lot of effort into policing the moral dimension. Food stamps can only be used for acceptable categories of food, and some kinds of aid are only given to those with jobs — as if those without jobs are simply lazy and need a good kick in the pants to motivate them. (In Elizabethan England those were termed “sturdy beggars,” i.e. assumed to be perfectly capable of work.) The Puritans have left us with a deep-seated fear that someone, somewhere, is receiving something they didn’t earn.

NGOs are all over the map, because they can be anything anybody has enough will and wherewithal to set up. Many of them aim at affecting, not specific types of people, but specific causes: the distribution of vaccines and eradication of diseases, environmental protection and restoration, and so forth. These have to scramble constantly to raise funds, because they can’t depend on regular tithes like a religious institution can, nor regular taxes like a government. Instead they’re reliant on individual citizens choosing to back their causes . . . and with so many of them clamoring for attention, deciding who you should support and how much you should give each one of them can become overwhelming.

There’s another facet to charity, though, which we often forget because it’s wildly out of reach for most of us. This is what I think of as “public charity”: the funding of some large-scale endeavor like a new building or institution.

In the West, at least, this goes back to ancient Greece, where wealthy citizens were expected to pay for things like temples or public theatres. (When they didn’t, you got Sparta: a society with wild income inequality, which left almost no great monuments to posterity.) Our modern equivalent is highly visible at universities, where a rich donor funds the construction or renovation of something on campus, whether that’s a whole new science building or something smaller like a lecture hall. In exchange, the university names that thing after them or a chosen relative, e.g. the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.

Obviously there’s a lot of prestige tied up in this kind of charity. If the average citizen gives a hundred dollars to an NGO, they get thanks and probably a bunch of personalized return address labels. But if you fund a symphony center or a library, you aren’t only doing a good thing; you’re also playing a status game with your fellow wealthy elites. One look around a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts (home of Harvard University) can give you a pretty good roster of the influential families of the past, through the repetition of certain names. In the ancient classical world, this sometimes rose to the level of straight-up obligation: gaining or holding public office meant you were required to use your wealth on certain public works.

So from a worldbuilding standpoint, you can do a lot of underpinning for your history and politics by asking: who funds this stuff? Is charity entirely a religious undertaking, or is it also the business of government? Are elites allowed to plaster their name across the things they back, and is that backing voluntary, implicitly required, or a literal obligation? Fiction gives us a lot of individual beggars on the street (and they’ll get their own essay someday), but much less of charity in its organized forms.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Public and Private Charity — 25 Comments

  1. Regarding your paragraph:
    ” In theory, governmental aid is usually driven purely by numbers, without too much concern for who’s morally deserving. In practice . . . I don’t know if it’s different in other countries, but the United States puts a lot of effort into policing the moral dimension. Food stamps can only be used for acceptable categories of food, and some kinds of aid are only given to those with jobs — as if those without jobs are simply lazy and need a good kick in the pants to motivate them. (In Elizabethan England those were termed “sturdy beggars,” i.e. assumed to be perfectly capable of work.) The Puritans have left us with a deep-seated fear that someone, somewhere, is receiving something they didn’t earn. ”

    I think the US does put (a lot) more weight on this “moral dimension” than is usual in law in some European countries, though we too are vulnerable to populist/capitalist/libertarian messagings about the undeserving poor, wanting to take handouts from us instead of working for their money – often coupled to an uncomfortable extent with making those undeserving poor people into “the other”, not people like us but itinerants, gypsies, labour migrants, illegal migrants and refugees, and others who can be portrayed as out-groups.

    Still it’s less enshrined in laws and rules as it is in the US and in Great Britain, where more than a decade of Tory austerity propaganda has deeply anchored the idea of the undeserving poor in both the rules and people’s minds.

    • All of which makes the true Marxist (not Communist!) aphorism so ironic: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs (wants).” (Translation VERYVERYVERY rough and very old — would probably be more faithfully rendered as “Every citizen contributes his best labor/efforts in return for subsistence and sharing in the general advancement,” but the pre-Keynesian, Central European conception of political economy probably didn’t support such fine distinctions.)

      That is, society-level “charity” isn’t a right, or a duty, under “true” Marxism — it’s assumed, it’s a fundamental feature. The irony of the godless commies reaching that conclusion (compared to the devout upright/uptight Puritans) is a bit much to ponder the day after the current Chairman of the Central Committee denied disaster aid to California over the wildfires last month.

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  3. One of the most interesting questions is the point at which the effort and expense of making the determination of whether a given individual is “worthy” or “unworthy” poor outweighs the savings of excluding those deemed “unworthy.” Someone has to do the evaluation of whatever evidence the applicant for assistance is required to provide, and unless that person is a volunteer, their time is going to cost money. And then there’s the issue of both false positives (people gaming the system) and false negatives (people who don’t present well) skewing the process if not corrected for, but the necessary measures to sift them out will add further to the expense.

    Some people would argue “that’s not the point,” that it’s not about saving money per se, but making sure that no one gets to leech on the system, to ride on the backs of the hard-working. Which is also the rationale for doling out only the barest of subsistence, even for those who cannot work and never will be able to, lest those who could be rehabilitated to work some kind of job be discouraged from trying.

    • Yeah, it all gets remarkably complicated, and depends in part on where your priorities are: the pure financial efficiency of the system vs. the effect you want the system to have. (And then, of course, whether that latter actually works, or if you just keep doing it that way because you’re convinced it ought to work and therefore does . . .)

    • It’s impossible to calculate whether one outweighs the other because you don’t know how many are deterred by the prospect of the rest. If a commune imposes the rule that those who arrive after noon aren’t allowed to eat dinner, and those who arrive before must put in work before dinner, word will get around.

      • You can’t calculate, except where you can. If a state makes a change to their program intended to deter abusers or undeserving, you can pretty easily measure the before-and-after effects. The problem is that measurement hasn’t gone well for the advocates of cracking down.

        Florida’s drug test law is a prime example. In 2011, Florida started requiring welfare recipients to pass a drug test or be removed from the program. In the first year they had 148 people — about 3% of welfare recipients — either fail or refuse the test, but the savings from that 3% was far outweighed by the $118k spent on drug tests. The state recorded a net loss of $45k, not counting incidental costs like the “thousands of hours” of staff time spent drug testing people. And while this was widely publicized and word certainly did “ged around”, there was no change whatsoever in the number of applicants for welfare. Other states have reported similar numbers. In other words… all testing did was result in the states not only spending more overall, but a hefty chunk of welfare budgets going not to people who needed money but to drug companies, leading some to wonder where the ACTUAL grift problem was here.

        I live in a very rural, very poor area, and I come down pretty firmly on the “punishing the tiny fraction of abusers is not worth making life harder for the vast number of people who really need the help” side.

        • I was thinking of means-testing, not drug testing. Saying “this benefit is only for income below X” creates admin overhead and some poverty trap (effective marginal income tax over 100% for some range) effect, but not doing it can mean having to spend much more. Like if 10% of the people are on food stamps, not checking means and giving the full benefit to anyone who asks could mean spending 10x as much… or more, because not everyone receiving aid was getting the full benefit.

    • I think I’m a lot more lefty/liberal than Mary but I agree with her on this point. You can’t just go “oh, screening applicants is taking 20% of our budget, so wasteful”; if you don’t screen at all, you might find your budget needs to be 2x, 3x, or 10x bigger, as more people apply for free money without any barrier.

      (And my memory of past research is that 20% is typical for a high-overhead benefits program like food stamps. For something like Social Security,with little ‘gaming’ potential it’s more like under 1%.)

      • That number is a wee bit out of date. In the 1980s, the rates of food stamp fraud were indeed 10-20%. That changed in the late 80s when food stamps stopped being actual (tradeable) stamps and turned into a EBT card that required a PIN number. The current fraud rates for food stamps are below 1.5%.

  4. Depends on the religion. The Emperor Julian, in his attempt at pagan revival, lamented, “For it is disgraceful, when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

  5. And then there are the odd forms of public charity like crowdfunding some public improvement, that very modern funding model which dates back to… the 17th century. Pre-modern Britain called it public subscription and was especially fond of using it to build bridges – the earliest one I can find with a quick google is the Stow Packhorse Bridge in 1654. The idea was that you would work out how much the bridge would cost, then get people to pledge contributions and if you got enough pledges to cover the cost you built it. Normally a few prominent people would make substantial pledges to get the ball rolling. Interestingly, none of the British projects seem to be named after those prominent individuals, although I assume everyone in the community would know who they were, so they would receive some public appreciation for their good deed.

    For some reason, the USA doesn’t seem to have had a comparable system – can that be right? And does anyone know about other European countries?

    • The earliest US lotteries were used specifically to fund roads and bridges, in the late 18th century. (And attempts to regulate them, and of private lotteries without such a purpose, are the factual circumstances behind a lot of foundational search-and-seizure law!)

      These — and modern — lotteries are sort of a “choose a losing bet that makes you feel good” sort of thing.

    • In the Netherlands we pay a lot of taxes, and expect those taxes to be spent to take care of us and our society. After all, the need for cooperation in collectively building and maintaining the dikes and waterways that keep us all from drowning created the oldest layer of the Dutch government, the ‘waterships’, and that practical need for working together for the collective good is deeply ingrained.
      Our roads, bridges, dikes and other infrastructure are generally well built and maintained to a high standard, as is the healthcare system, social security safety net, and other essential public services like fire brigades, police, and schools and libraries (though those can get squeezed in times of recession and diminishing government income, as can other things that some people consider luxuries, like support for the arts and sports). We are used to all the essentials being collectively taken care of, without the need for GoFundMes or crowdfunding lotteries for any essentials.

      Still we were a very Calvinist (north) and Catholic (south) society, and the need to give to charity personally is still quite strong. IIRC the Dutch were in the top ten of the chart for voluntary charitable giving that I saw a few years back, despite all the taxes we pay too, giving aroung 5.5 billion annually in 2018 (for a population of 17 million), about half from individual donations (lotteries, company donations, legacies etcetera were responsible for the other half). Here is that list from 2016:
      The USA tops that chart at 1.44% of GDP, almost double the runner-up. Logical, as so many people and sometimes whole communities there depend on charity support, Patreon and GoFundMes for essentials. A similar reason accounts for the UK, where decades of Tory austerity and a deliberate ‘hostile environment’ created in government agencies towards those who need support has made many more people dependent on others’ generosity.
      Still, we Dutch, despite coming in at number 10, only give about 0.3% of GDP personally, rather than the 3% I read (when I was 18) that would be enough to solve all the world’s problems…
      I’m not counting volunteering in this, as we were talking about charity, and I consider that to be about giving money or goods, not time and expertise.

      This money tends to go to causes that aren’t supported by the government, or only to a limited extent – things like sports, culture, specific illness research, advocate groups and such, which are not seen as core essentials for everyone.
      This happens structurally in at least four ways.
      1) There are several (yearly recurring) national lotteries for a good cause, like Jaws describes, that give the money to cultural causes, or divide the money among the local sports clubs that sold the tickets – those are quite popular.
      Other government-sanctioned types of gambling always need to spend a substantial part of their income on such officially-recognised good causes.

      2) One that I think may be very Dutch: every week a different registered charity can come by people’s houses to ask them to donate a little money to the cause. Most weeks are decided nationally (by the central charities registration), but each council can decide which other charities can go ‘collecting’ for 1 of the remaining 4 weeks a year. You don’t get someone at the door each week, as not all charities can field volunteer ‘collectors’ in all towns or on all streets. They used to come by with a jingling sealed can for people to put their loose change in, but Covid has made that harder to do, so this year some have gone digital and others have abstained. The take depends a lot on the charity: when I collected for the heart research foundation, almost all the houses would give a euro or two; for the lung foundation it was a bit less, and for Amnesty International only one in four would give something, maybe 50 cents.

      3) A more universal way, I expect. Lots of people (more than 89% of households) are ‘donateurs’, registered members of charitable organisations, giving a set amount each year electronically to support the good works that organisation does. Speaking from my own acquaintance, people can be members of three to more than 20 such charities, paying on average about 310 euros a year per household, for anything from lifeguards to guide dogs, animal rescue, local/national/worldwide nature preservation, illness research, arts and culture, activist or advocate groups etcetera.

      4) I understand that members of a church congregation are also expected to tithe to their church, for the upkeep of churches, paying the pastor, supporting the parish etc. – as an atheist I don’t know the details, except that if you don’t want the tithe to be garnished directly from your salary to the church coffers, you have to tell Human Resources that you do not give permission for that. Otherwise permission is assumed when you officially state your religion to be such-and-such to your employer (which you don’t have to do, so doing so is considered to be done because you want your tithing to be automated). At least that was the way of it 30 years ago, when I learned this from a colleague.
      The Netherlands is fairly secular, not a very religious country, so I don’t know of many charities that rely on churches, though some churches do give support to some illegal refugees and homeless people, and they locally do things like visiting sick or elderly parishioners.

      5) Rarely, when there’s been a big disaster somewhere, people will collect a lot of useful goods (tents, blankets, warm clothes, soft toys for the kids, things like that) to go bring those to where they’re needed. This is mostly a smaller ad-hoc action organised by people who have been touched by the plight of people in the news (or animals), like when the Romanian borders opened and the plight of the children in those dreadful orphanages was discovered; or when a hurricane hits the Caribean islands. Most aid and charitable donations gets channeled through the larger registered charities like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders, but separate from those these small extra aid efforts often arise spontaneously and locally. A local supermarket may let a group like that set up in their lobby, asking prople to buy an extra bag of rice and bottle of cooking oil for Syrian refugees, or a tray of dogfood for the starving stray dogs in Spain, and donate that when they leave the shop.

      Two and five may be a form of begging, but it’s only allowed on behalf of registered charities. Personal begging is, as far as I know, illegal – I’ve never seen it in the Netherlands. The one or two things that come close are a) homeless people selling special newspapers at the door to a shopping center or supermarket, the “Daklozenkrant” which they can get at homeless shelters to sell; and b) street musicians on shopping streets putting out a hat for people to put money in if they enjoy the music. Both generally need a permit (unless the town hasn’t regulated it; AFAIK the homeless shelter organisation holds the permit for selling newspapers on the street) and aren’t considered beggars, as you get something in return.

      Okay, that’s probably more than you wanted to know!

      • Thanks! I do appreciate getting perspectives from outside the U.S. — I do a lot of reading, but I still don’t know all the possible spins, and there’s inevitably going to be some baked-in bias around the things I don’t even think to question (though I do try to question as much as I can).

  6. While I don’t believe in SFnal ideas of reputation systems replacing money (a la Doctorow or Eclipse Phase) it is interesting to think about how high tech reputation systems might work. E.g. if you could easily look up how much people had given away, or paid in taxes, or if they’d voted or served a full jury term[1]. With or without augmented reality (AR) glasses so you get the info just by looking at people.

    I suppose China’s social credit system is the top-down dystopian version.

    [1] Though I think mandatory and unpaid jury duty is bullshit. 4th century Athens was voluntary and paid decently.

  7. Um, a tiny niggle about Sparta (“When they didn’t, you got Sparta: a society with wild income inequality, which left almost no great monuments to posterity”). Both of these statements are true about Sparta in the 5th century BCE, but they weren’t connected. Athens was also a society with massive income inequality, but the ultra-rich were obliged to do public works. This has obviously left us a lot of lovely ruins in Athens, but nothing in Sparta. In fact Sparta’s society was arguably more egalitarian than Athens’s (although focused on miltary fitness and training).

    • Sparta’s society was not nearly as egalitarian as it billed itself as being — starting with the fact that you had an ENORMOUS and horrifically impoverished population of slaves, even compared to other Greek city-states of the period. But even if you disregard those (which I think would be an error), there was also a high amount of inequality within the free and spartiate classes, whatever the rhetoric may have said. So while I’m not saying Athens was without inequality (it absolutely wasn’t a level playing field), they had inequality + the obligation to do public charity, which led to having great monuments. Sparta had inequality sans obligation, and they didn’t leave much at all behind that’s tangible.