Americans, regardless of political viewpoint, have long had a significant preference for giving aid to others through private charities than through government agencies. The reason commonly given is Americans want to make sure their money goes to aid causes they agree with and not support causes they somehow find unworthy. A typical criticism of this approach is that private charity is limited in its scope, allowing a giver’s bias to get in the way of urgent human need. Recently, the New York Times published the results of a study of New York City philanthropy which may cast doubt whether private charities help those in need at all. What struck me about the article is not that surface message, but how it offers an ironic confirmation of Catholic Social Teaching argued by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio: how development does help bring about a more humane environment composed of more complete human beings.
If the Times article is correct, the bulk of giving in the New York Metropolitan Area goes to the maintenance and growth of institutions which help sustain and grow the people of those economic classes who donate the money in the first place. It is a virtuous cycle for them. The affluent of New York donate to those institutions which help their descendants maintain their quality of life and perhaps rise further in society. Private charity here is not aid of one’s neighbor in need, but an investment by the people of an economic class to secure their own future as developed, well-rounded human beings. One should ask if this study may be representative of the majority of private charity giving across the United States.
The irony is that critics of Catholic Social Teaching on development often question whether charity for the poor works to resolve poverty. Too often, the criticism is accompanied by a demand for a quick return on investment: a reduction of poverty achieved over a short-term period with a near-perfect success rate. However, this study may show that people in higher economic classes do not exercise any impatience when they invest in themselves. The unintentional confirmation of Catholic Social Teaching offered by this study is that investment in human development must be substantial and sustained over time. If development cannot be treated as a one-off rush job for the wealthiest among us, it most certainly is not the case for the poorest among us who may need more resources and help to become the human beings they ought to be.