I don’t normally respond to critical letters to the editor about my column. My position is I get 600 words a week in several newspapers to have my say, so why should I devote any space to responding to a few paragraphs?
But I have decided to make an exception to that position because certain recent critical remarks have offered a teachable moment -- and there is nothing I love more than a teachable moment.
In a recent column I made disparaging comments about political conservatives and their concern for the poor. Several letters to editors pointed out that many conservatives are extremely generous with their gifts to charities, which apparently, in their view, contradicted my opinion.
But let’s stop for a moment and consider the true benefit of charity.
Charity, at its best, serves only to maintain the poor in their poverty. Charity helps the poor to get by, to live for the day, or the week. A few cans of food, a bag of groceries, some second-hand clothes -- and there you go. Sadly, charity does nothing to address the deeper issues of poverty which are systemic.
Charity is maintenance. What is needed is justice.
Charity does not address unfair tax structures, such as exist in Alabama. In our state the lowest 20 percent of wage earners pay a much higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes than do those who are in the upper 20 percent. Our regressive tax structure serves only to bless the rich while penalizing the poor. And please note we are talking about wage earners -- that is, people who work. This has nothing to do with those who do not have a job.
You might recall that Jesus said “Blessed are the poor.” Not so much in Alabama.
The wealthy are further blessed by a beneficial property tax arrangement. Large corporate landholders with vast tracts of timber and farmlands are taxed at pennies on the acre. In rural Alabama counties, where most of the land is held by corporations, county schools are starved for funds because of an inordinately low property tax.
Every study of poverty ever completed has linked the role of education to breaking the cycle of poverty. But if we fail to adequately fund public schools, how will we ever achieve the goal of providing adequate educational opportunities to the poorest of our neighbors?
Charity has no power to touch these larger economic and political issues. We can take up all the canned goods and second-hand clothes we want, but if we do not address the larger issues of taxation and education, we simply surrender ourselves to generation after generation of poverty.
And please don’t quote to me Jesus saying, “The poor you will always have with you.” He was not resigning us to a world in which there will always be poor people. He was reminding us of the Covenant expectation in Deuteronomy where Moses told the people of Israel that it was their responsibility to care for the least of these in our midst.
Charity has its place. In a country as rich as ours, no one should be hungry for even a day. But what is more important is for human beings to have the opportunity to find the dignity of working for themselves, and feeding their families on their own.
That is a matter of justice and calls for a far deeper commitment than mere charity.