I was probably 7 or 8 years old, it was Christmastime and I was shopping with my mother. Outside a busy store, Mom spotted a loose bill on the sidewalk and picked it up. It seemed like a lot of money to me, a ten or a twenty. Oh, lucky us! I thought. All that money, just lying there, and now it’s ours! My mother took just a moment to look at it, remarked on how it was too bad someone had lost it, and then she walked over to a Salvation Army bell ringer and put it in the bucket.
I couldn’t believe it. What about finders keepers!? We needed that money. My parents were always telling me and my siblings they couldn’t afford lots of the things we wanted. And she was just giving this windfall away?
I’d always been a little confused about this: My father, who’d grown up with almost nothing, was a fanatic about not wasting money, timing showers and phone calls and how long the refrigerator door was open. There were eight of us; money truly was tight. But when I once said something about being poor, he said, oh, no, we’re better off than 90% of people in the world. That took some processing in my young mind.
And now Mom was saying we should give this money to people who needed it more than we did. People who didn’t have enough food or a place to live. Besides, it wasn’t really our money, we just lucked into it, so this was the right thing to do.
More processing for my brain. But the idea of charitable giving, which was new to me, became perfectly clear at that moment. That’s why I remember the incident so well. And the way children understand things is often exactly the right way, before we add any adult arguments and contingencies to it. I have money because I’m lucky, and other people don’t have money because they didn’t have my luck, and I can give some of mine to them.
That basic idea still works for me.
I mean, my husband and I both worked hard for our money, I guess. We got up every morning and went to our jobs and did the best we could and saved money. Good for us. My job could be stressful, but I ate in restaurants for a living, for heaven’s sake! We didn’t work hard, not really hard, like nurses or teachers or roofers or customer service reps.
The older I get, the more I realize how my good life is built on the hard, often badly compensated labor of other people. I can afford to buy the food I want because farmers don’t make enough money, because field laborers break their backs for my strawberries. I wear what I want because people bend over sewing machines for hours a day for little pay.
How am I in my cozy position instead of theirs? Because I’m as lucky as someone who finds money on the sidewalk. I’m white and I’m American. I was born on the right side of the growing wealth gap. My parents had good values. College was cheap. My husband and I have never had to deal with the things that can send someone spiraling downward, like major health problems, divorce, layoffs or accidents. Our children weren’t handicapped or sickly, and their grandparents helped send them to college, and now they’re self-supporting.
What surprises me now is not that someone would give found money away. It’s that people don’t give more of it. Americans are known as generous, and our government subsidy of charity through the tax deduction is huge. We donate 2 percent of the GDP. The biggest category of giving is religion. Education and healthcare are big.
But of all the money that individual people give to nonprofits, less than a third goes to help poor people at all, including in the education and religion categories, and only about 7 percent goes to help meet poor people’s basic needs. For millionaires, it’s only 4 percent. (I learned this from an eye-opening book called “Just Giving” by Rob Reich, a Stanford economist. The statistics are from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.)
Personally, I think we should make that higher. You can hand out money on the street if you want, but it’s probably better to be deliberate about it, so find a charity you believe in. Give at Christmas, when we all think about it and make it part of the good feelings of the season. Better though to set up an automatic payment plan so you give a little money all year. Do it because it’s right, or because it feels good. But you don’t have to wait to hear someone ringing a bell.