The story of a Christmas basket

The year was 1962. I was fresh out of graduate school, and my first social work job was at Brightmoor Community Center. Maryann Mahaffey, who was to become a long-standing Detroit City Council member, was my supervisor.

One afternoon in early December, I received a call from someone in the community. She called to report that there was a woman in dire straits. Her husband had left the family and she needed help. Could we arrange for her to get a Christmas basket?

I got into my car and drove off to the address we were given and rang the doorbell. An attractive young woman came to the door, and I introduced myself. “We received a phone call saying that you might need a Christmas basket this year,” I said. “Who called you?” she wanted to know. I indicated that that information was confidential.

In the ensuing discussion, she indicated that she had no source of income and did not know how she and the children could get by. It may be hard to believe today, but at that time many people were not aware of public assistance, and I told her of her right to apply for welfare.

Then I asked her if she wanted to be put on the list for a Christmas basket. There was a pause as she mulled the matter over in her mind. “Will they come here and humiliate me in front of my children?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. She again hesitated, finally saying, “Put my name in.”

The woman’s reaction was not a surprise. The food basket type of charity can feel degrading. It puts the giver one-up and the receiver one-down. The charity giver may feel pride and comfort while the recipient may feel shame. Whose needs are being met? We should also recognize that food baskets is an especially unpredictable response to need. The need is ongoing, not just when someone feels like giving.

Before the days of public welfare, charity often made the distinction between the worthy and unworthy, giving only to worthy. Such a frame of mind is not uncommon today. Is a woman who is “unchaste” deserving of assistance? The person making the judgment may or may not be “chaste.” Or it may be said, “Some people will not work.” The assertion is made with out considering the disabling mental and other conditions that might be present.

Charity is not the answer to poverty. Society moved from private charity to public assistance as a result of the Great Depression, which was more than traditional private charity could handle. And with public assistance came the principle of assistance as a right. The person who meets the legal criteria has a right to assistance. A rejection can be appealed. It is not discretionary. By contrast, there is no right to charity. Charity is discretionary. No appeal.

So what is a caring person to do? We must all recognize the importance of adequate income support in addressing the problem of poverty. When this takes the form of public assistance, we can stand up for a level of support adequate to permit recipients to live in conditions of dignity and decency. We can tell that to our politicians. This holiday season might be a good time to let them know what you think. 

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