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Ditch Charity, Pick Mutual Aid

The ultra-wealthy present themselves as the solution for inequality, pledging millions and sometimes billions of dollars to philanthropic projects. Take Jeff Bezos, who gave $100 million to food banks during the pandemic, but did not provide adequate leave for Amazon workers who were sick during initial COVID outbreaks. Most billionaires’ charitable acts are more self-serving than truly helpful. Charity is a flawed practice, rooted in the idea that the poor have a deficit that the rich must aid. Mobilizing communities to engage in mutual aid projects will make far more change than sticking with the charity model. 

In his book Mutual Aid, Dean Spade explains that the modern charity model is based on Christian European morals that preach the notion that wealthy people are innately superior because they are not lazy so they are deserving of their status (and vice versa). This model also has entrance requirements for receiving help, like proof of sobriety, citizenship, or job training efforts. Low-income people basically have to determine their worth to earn assistance, and the determining factors are steeped in racism and sexism. 

Spade’s book delves into how charity organizations often reinforce social issues instead of remedying them. Government charity programs are set up in this way and uphold oppressive systems. For example, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program sets family caps to restrict recipients from getting additional benefits when they have a new child. The policy was born from racist and sexist tropes that poor women of color and immigrant women have too many children. Limitations imposed on welfare recipients, as seen with TANF, disproportionately harm people of color. Slavery and Jim Crow policies permeate in TANF, leading to further deterioration in assisting families in need. In 1996, 68 of every 100 impoverished families with children received benefits from TANF. By 2019, this figure dropped to 23. With strings attached and many limitations, TANF does not provide efficient protection against poverty, nor does it revolutionize the systems at the root of the problem. 

Charity programs that are privatized and run by nonprofits, as opposed to the government, are also economically destructive and unfair. The nonprofit system benefits the wealthy beyond just brandishing their reputation: it creates a tax shelter for them. In 2014, the founder of Go-Pro Nicholas Woodman hacked his taxes with charity. He pledged to give away $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, but the money has been untraceable since. Woodman was able to claim a charitable deduction, saving millions, and avoid paying capital gains taxes… all because he donated to a fund that has no accountability and is not mandated to disclose where the money goes. Nonprofits help deceptively convince the working and middle classes that the rich are helping out and have a purpose, when in reality they are maintaining their positions and remaining disconnected from the root cause of the social crises they are sending money to. 

Even if traditional charity is well-intentioned, it can perpetuate inequality. Right now, around 260,000 philanthropic organizations hold $1.5 trillion dollars and spend it as they see fit. Wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a few rich people who do not have to make real sacrifices to alter the very system that produces this harmful cycle. Not only do they get to maintain their wealth and lifestyles, they have tax benefits from donating to charity that only allows their wealth to grow. On top of that, their reputations are boosted as they are painted as selfless donors making grand gestures for the underprivileged. 

Probably most devastating, charity also fails democracy—groups cloaked under the guise of philanthropy donate to political causes to influence elections with total anonymity. Section 501(c)(4) of the US tax code permits organizations to make donations in politics while concealing their name as long as it is not their only form of expenditures. This practice of secretly funneling “dark money” into campaigns defeats the purpose of democracy, holding donors unaccountable in shaping the outcome of elections. Just last year, real-estate billionaire Rick Caruso spent $100 million on his (albeit unsuccessful) LA Mayoral campaign. In a race focused on homelessness, he poured money into his election bid and not the local housing crisis. Even if he was defeated by Karen Bass, the ultra-wealthy and their political spending to suit their interests is not a unique phenomenon. The private sector challenges the validity of the government as it usurps the voices of citizens by controlling how well-funded a candidate or policy is. Americans have seen firsthand what happens when a few wealthy individuals have most of the say in the government in America—corruption at its finest.

For real change to be made, we must shift towards mutual aid, which Spade defines as “survival work” that is “done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change.” A fish rots from the head down; mutual aid seeks to revolutionize systems from their origin. Our activism should transform the ongoing issues that white supremacy and capitalism has created, not reinforce them. As opposed to charity work, mutual aid projects grow solidarity and meet needs by mobilizing people rather than hoping for so-called saviors. Mutual aid organizers step in during times of need. In 2020, activist Isak Douah bought gas masks to prevent frontliners at Black Lives Matter protests from tear gas, accepting support via Venmo. In a time of acute democratic crisis, mutual aid is more important than ever to address our failing systems, expose injustice, and prevent further disasters. To make strong and lasting change, it is crucial to ditch the harmful charity model and channel our energy to mutual aid projects.

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