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Charity Chief Tired of ‘Blame the Poor’ Mentality

Growing mean spiritedness is used to justify abandoning those laid low by the economy.

There’s a concept in social psychology that goes something like this: When other people err, we attribute it to flaws in their character; when we screw up, we blame it on circumstances – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

So when someone else runs up credit card debt, we think “spendthrift.” When we do it, it’s because of a medical emergency and necessary student loans.

Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, says he has seen this type of thinking amplified since the economy tanked. Instead of sympathizing with those who lost their jobs or homes, some blame the poor for their plight – which makes it so much easier to justify not helping them.

These critics have found a home on the Internet. I’m always struck by the vitriol – often from anonymous cowards – that shows up in comment sections after online stories about someone who is struggling financially.

“The people whose mean spirit and ideology lead them to oppose any expression of sympathy for people who are on the margins are getting more and more effective at convincing [others] that those people are not victims, but perpetrators,” Jennings said.

It’s been a tough year for Community Action. President Obama proposed cutting in half Community Services Block Grants and House GOP leadership sought to eliminate them entirely. Jennings credits Lehigh Valley Republican Rep. Charlie Dent with helping to save most of the grant money, which is vital to the group’s anti-poverty programs. 

The federal stimulus funds that pay for CACLV’s weatherization program to make homes of low-income people more energy efficient will dry up in March and CACLV is expecting to lay off about 20 workers.

After initially fearing it would have to close Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Easton, CACLV is transferring the operation to an advisory board as of Oct. 1, with some seed money for the first couple of years. Last year, Safe Harbor sheltered more than 300 men and women and provided 17,000 meals for those in need.

Some people hesitate to give to charities out of fear much of their gift will be eaten up in fundraising and administrative costs – a valid concern. But CACLV spent just 7.6 percent of its budget on those expenses last year, Jennings said. That’s low even compared to other reputable charities, like the American Red Cross, which spends about 10 percent on fundraising and administration.

Those who clamor for government to cut spending often argue that helping the misfortunate should be left to private charities and churches. But such groups will tell you that they don’t have the capacity to help everyone in need without some government funding, particularly in this economy.

This is no time for Americans to forget how to walk a mile in another man’s shoes.

Betty Cauler August 26, 2011 at 04:13 AM
Amen, Margie! Great article and great comments from Alan Jennings. It's always easy to blame someone else for the economy tanking, but the real blame is not with those (like myself) who lost their jobs through no fault of their own—it's with Wall Street bankers and big greedy corporations sending jobs overseas for bountiful tax credits and other perks. While I was on unemployment, I got so sick of hearing how we 99ers were all a bunch of lazy drug addicts milking the hard-working taxpayers of their last dollar. Quite the contrary, I used the time to go back to college and earn my master's degree, although as of yet it has not helped me land a full time job. I currently work two part time jobs that don't equal half of my salary at my last job and I'm quickly draining my retirement account in order to pay the monthly bills. But I refuse to stop giving to local charities that do so much to help everyone who is struggling to make it in this economy. There will always be someone who is worse off than I am. I hope everyone who reads this article realizes the many blessings they have been given and that their compassion will lead them to give, even a little, to those charities that are doing so much good in this world.
susan deyoung August 28, 2011 at 06:11 PM
Wow, you know the pulse of the people. You articulate our thoughts so well. Thank you, Margie.
Margie Peterson August 28, 2011 at 06:40 PM
Thank you Betty and Susan. Betty, that kind of work ethic and generousity is really admirable in the face of adversity.

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