Instead of charity, how about justice?

Sometimes I get into a loop reading The New York Times Neediest Cases – the paper’s holiday season project using storytelling about New Yorkers fallen on hard times that raises funds for the nonprofits helping these people. As the founder of two nonprofits dedicated to helping people in poverty, I’m all about fundraising and am delighted that The Times has taken in more than $5 million for good causes this year.

But the stories tend to put me in a bad temper, because between the lines I keep reading about year-round problems whose solution lies in justice – not charity.

Take Charles Louis, a young man whose childhood included stays in a homeless shelter and foster care. He has struggled to find steady, well-paid employment and a consistent place to live. Through Neediest Cases, Catholic Charities was able to buy Louis a suit to help him search for a better job. Catholic Charities also put Louis up in transitional housing for a time and helped him get into training to become a security guard. He now works as a guard 17 hours a week for $13 an hour. He wants to work full-time.

Again, good on Catholic Charities for buffering Louis from an economy that chews up low-wage workers. But there are bigger issues here – issues I wish that a newspaper of The Times’ power and influence would tackle. And I wish the donors who open their checkbooks at holiday time would also open their minds to systemic reform.

Louis is currently living in Paterson, NJ, where a living wage for a single person is $12.99. That presumes full-time work, but 5.6 million Americans like Louis who want full-time jobs are stuck in part-time gigs, according to the Department of Labor.

The story’s emotional hook is Louis’ reunion with his beloved dog, Silver, whom he could not take with him in transitional housing. The entire time I was reading I thought: How long is he going to be able to keep his apartment and his dog? The fair market rate for a studio apartment in the county where he lives is $1,246 – more than he takes home from his part-time job. He must not have Section 8 assistance, since that program was last open in New Jersey for five days in 2016.

Another story takes us into the lives of Katherine Rivera and her three children, who are living in a homeless shelter. Except for one hiatus when the family got an apartment, they have been staying in shelters since she left her husband in 2012, ending what she describes as a violently abusive relationship. With a 9th grade education and little work experience, Rivera has found it hard to get and hold a job. She is currently enrolled in a computer training program that she hopes will lead to employment. Meanwhile, the family receives $498 in cash assistance and $400 in food stamps monthly.

The poverty rate for women who separate from their spouses is 27 percent, nearly triple that of men after a divorce. For women like Rivera whose work was keeping a home and raising children, there is an acute disadvantage upon reentering the workforce, which of course generally penalizes women by giving them lower pay than men.

A computer class – one of the non-profit services The Times is touting – may be the best alternative within the available system. But the available system is a mess.

For most of the past five years, the family has sought shelter in institutions run with public or private non-profit funds. The kids’ educations have been disrupted, which poses a danger of long term costs in repeated years and diminished earning power. Riviera, according the article, is being treated for depression. Of course she is – she hasn’t had a stable home in years!

How about this? How about instead of cheaping out with a $498 payment that won’t go far at all toward supporting a NYC family, we (meaning the United States of America) just provided Rivera with the funds she needs to meet her family’s basic needs? How about we say: Work toward your GED while the kids are at school, and we’ll cover the rent? My guess is that this would cost no more than a hodgepodge of services that she must navigate to cobble together a life. It would create dignity and security for her and her children. I am betting that would pay benefits for society, though frankly I’m making the argument primarily because it is simply the right thing to do.

How about providing a similar basic safety net for Louis as he works toward finding full-time work? How about requiring employers to pay into a benefits account for part-time employees – which might indeed encourage them to upgrade more jobs to full-time? How about raising the minimum wage in recognition of the fact that so many Americans are trapped in part-time positions?

It is beautiful that readers found it in their hearts to donate millions to ease the sufferings of the area’s poor. But it would be better if they were willing to advocate and – Yes, I’ll say it – pay taxes to support a system that would eliminate poverty.

About 15 percent of Americans live below the Federal Poverty Level. Economists estimate that it would take 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product to lift them out. In the last fiscal year, that would have worked out to $185.7 billion. The president’s 2018 budget request calls for $640 billion for the Department of Defense. Through public policy, we choose poverty for millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of them children. Instead of clicking on the occasional GoFundMe page that sparks something in us, we should recognize that everyone has a right to come in out of the cold to a nutritious meal. The human rights of our fellow Americans shouldn’t rely on the whims of those of us who can write an extra check on New Year’s Eve.

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