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Why We Don’t Give

We—the children of the boomers, the privileged progressives—have a giving problem, which is that we don’t do it. Instead, we cloak ourselves in the trappings of charity. We carve out lives that appear to be socially just, full of free … Read More

By / November 6, 2007

We—the children of the boomers, the privileged progressives—have a giving problem, which is that we don’t do it. Instead, we cloak ourselves in the trappings of charity. We carve out lives that appear to be socially just, full of free range chicken and Birkenstocks. We look good, even if we don’t do-good. Hell, we ask for money, either as non-profiteers, or as individuals with pet projects. Each year, I get a handful of e-mails from friends requesting “charitable donations.” They want to take their band on the road, or they want to fly to Nepal to read bedtime stories to orphans, and they’re asking me to fund the trip. They have feral cats to foster, and co-operative gardens to maintain, and that’s great, but it does little to repair the world. Sure it’s nice to have live music in the park, but that that just makes our lives nicer, decorates our world. Please understand, I’m in no position to judge, because I’m worst of all. Last year, while working for a Jewish charity I “rescued” Kareem, a stray pit bull living down the street from me. Then I spent SEVEN THOUSAND dollars to kill her slowly, with a fancy veterinary specialist, on credit, and then solicited Jewish donors to fund my hopeless project. And it worked. Which is insane. I cared enough to nurse the damn dog, just not enough to put the bill on my own credit card, or take a second job to pay the bill. SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS TO KILL A DAMN DOG!!! I wasn’t being a do-gooder, I was sucking the system, siphoning off money that could have been going to AIDS research or literacy. I got so caught up in what looked like charity that I lost all reason, not to mention my math skills. I realize now that for years I’ve made the mistake of mixing up my progressive lifestyle for true charity, and I think maybe you have too.
Ask yourself: Do you feel better about yourself when you shop at Whole Paycheck, or when you ride your bike to work? Do you imagine the world thinks you “look” progressive? And how do you judge the world? Let’s say you spot a thirty-ish woman in a vintage sundress, carrying a cloth grocery bag to the farmers market while sipping a soy chai, and walking beside her is a middle aged woman in a salmon colored Capri pants-and-sweatshirt ensemble that surely came from Wal-Mart. A Disney outfit. She’s drinking a Big Gulp. How might you imagine they stack up to each other with regard to charity? I bet the Wal-Mart mom gives a big chunk of change to her church each year, which—among other things—supports a soup kitchen. And I bet she doesn’t have a ringer-T that says so either. Keep in mind, it’s still good to ride your bike to work, but if it makes you feel like you’ve “done your bit” there’s a problem. If your hemp pants make you feel like you don’t need to send some money to Louisiana, you’ve gotten off the path. For some, the solution seems to be “getting involved” but that doesn’t take the place of giving either. So if you’re working in the development office of an environmental organization, however cool that is—you should be donating to that same organization as well. Because when you’re getting paid to do “good work”, it isn’t really charity. That’s just the non-profit sector supporting you.
Maybe we’re screwed up because we’re just plain bad with money, raised on credit cards and take-out, but there’s an illogic in place, because we think we’re progressive. We think we want to help. We’ve taken the Sesame Street aesthetics that our hippie parents fed us, and we’ve blended them with the greed of our own me decades, and the result is a lot of bumper stickers. We buy organic milk, and then get wasted on Cosmos, or we buy ethanol for our SUVs. The image of progressive living has a price tag., and so we don’t ever have enough to give to charity. Our appetites always exceed our resources, no matter how great our resources may be. Face it. We just really like to buy stuff, and we live in a world designed to feed that passion. Despite our aesthetics of charity, despite our rocking of the vote—what does our generation value? TiVo. High speed Internet. Very pale beers with slices of citrus fruit floating in them. Whatever the billboards tell us to value, which means our discretionary spending is beyond belief. Three years ago, a study based on more than 7000 households showed that just over one-half (53 %) of our generation made donations of $25 or more in 2000. Compare this to our post-Holocaust/Depression grandparents, 80% of whom gave at our age. Or our hippie parents, who donated at a rate of 75%. Bubbe and Zayde gave an average of $1,707. We give $532. But Generation X, Y, and Z? We refuse to share our good fortune. Despite the fact that a 30-year-old today (we’ll call him Mike) is 50% more likely to have a college degree than his dad (Steve), and despite the fact that Mike earns $5,000 more a year than Steve did 30 years ago (even adjusted for inflation), he isn’t giving any of it away. In fact, Mike probably doesn’t believe he can afford to give. Like many of us, he think he’ll have the money someday, talks about what he’ll do when that day comes, and then goes out for dinner. Like many of us, he thinks he’s “just getting by.”
But our generation has a strange concept of what it means to “get by.” We spend more on vacations than our grandparents ever dreamed of, and per trip expenditures have increased 66% over the past 5 years. While Steve spent a well-earned week in the Poconos, Mike flies off to Mali, and even if he has to slap it on the credit card, he feels totally entitled. In 1997, Generation X spent approximately $30 billion eating out, and we’re the highest consumers of fast food, beer, wine coolers (ugh!), and booze. When it comes to food, we lead the way with soda, chocolate, chips and beer, so then of course we spend a lot on gym memberships too. So I’m making a resolution now, and I’m asking you to hold me to it. I’m going to do better. In fact, I’m going to try to give away 7K next year, to make up for Kareem the dead dog. I’m going to research giving, and I’m going to stop eating out so fucking much. I’m going to try to figure out how the people who give make it work. That’s right, I’m admitting my ignorance and facing the music. I’m going to talk to my grandparents, and maybe a banker, or a rabbi, and I’ll get back to you when I have some answers. In the meantime, what are you going to do? * * * Short quiz: 1.) Do you have bumper stickers or T shirts that advocate missions you haven’t actively contributed to in the last year? 2.) Do your organic purchases each week outnumber the quantity of organizations where you’ve volunteered? 3.) Have you traveled in a developing nation and then come home and bought items made in China? 4.) Is the amount of money you spend on alcohol each week more or less than the amount of money you spend of charitable causes? 5.) Do you belong to Working Assets? If so, how often do you actually make an additional donation when you pay your bill?

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