The sloganeers like to call Yuletide the “season of giving.” Just so, Americans tend to give gifts to each other and to strangers, to donate to charities, and to volunteer their time more during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. If you are among the many world fixers, do gooders, and lazy shoppers who give charitable contributions for their Christmas presents, or if you are among the saints who devote their time to their fellow man, you may wish to consult the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide, especially the list of sober suggestions for charity in “Effective Compassion: Seven Principles from a Century Ago.” Consider, for example, the third principle, categorization:
Charities a century ago realized that two persons in exactly the same material circumstances, but with different values, need different treatment: One might benefit most from some material help and a pat on the back, the other might need spiritual challenge and a push. Those who were orphaned, elderly, or disabled received aid; jobless adults who were “able and willing to work” received help in job-finding; “those who prefer to live on alms” and those of “confirmed intemperance” were not entitled to material assistance.
“Work tests” helped both in sorting and in providing relief with dignity. When an able-bodied man came to a homeless shelter, he often was asked to chop wood for two hours or to whitewash a building; in that way he could provide part of his own support and also help those unable to chop. A needy woman generally was given a seat in the “sewing room” (often near a child care room) and asked to work on garments that would be donated to the helpless poor or sent through the Red Cross to families suffering from the effects of hurricanes or tornadoes. The work test, along with teaching good habits and keeping away those who did not really need help, also enabled charities to teach the lesson that those who were being helped could help others.
Today, don’t we need to stop talking about “the poor” in abstraction and start distinguishing once again between those who truly yearn for help and those who just want an enabler? Programs have the chance to succeed only when categories are established and firmly maintained. Work tests can help: Why shouldn’t some homeless men clean up streets and parks and remove graffiti? Now, as thousands of crack babies born addicted to cocaine and often deserted by mothers who care only for the next high, languish in hospitals under bright lights and with almost no human contact, why shouldn’t homeless women (some are psychotic or sick, but others are healthy and gentle) be assigned to hold a baby for an hour in exchange for food and shelter?
Such appears to me as solid and wise advice.