Nov. 29, 2021

17. Can you spare a dollar to help me get home?


Today’s letter is about a listener who wonders about giving money to a person with a cardboard sign. Here’s the letter:

Last weekend, my partner and I were out walking our dog and I gave a guy $20. He had a sign that said he'd had a bad year and needed help. He was in pretty bad shape and the way I saw it, we would've just wasted the money ordering lattes on Postmates, but my partner flipped out. He said the guy would 'blow the money on alcohol and drugs' and that twenty bucks won't make any 'sustainable change.' What do you think? 

We have a long history of not trusting poor people to handle money. And an even longer history of over-trusting that rich people know what to do with money. It’s a story as old as time. As a result, we have built a lot of middle men and middle steps to supposedly protect the money from being blown. Not to protect the people who actually needed the help, but to protect the money. 

And here’s the ironic part, we know that when we just give people the money directly, we reduce the time they will have to wait, they get to keep all of the money we intended for them without losing it to middle men, and they are able to apply the money to their lives with a surgeon’s accuracy for how they need and want to use it. So, if you really want to help someone, just give them the money. 

But to be honest, I think there’s also the moral hand wringing that we need to address here. This concern that the guy with the cardboard sign will use some or all of the money to buy drugs and alcohol. In two words, so what? Is your partner sure that poor people use more drugs and alcohol than rich people? Based on my observations occupying both types of spaces, I’m not sure that’s the case at all. Or is his point that poor people shouldn’t be buying drugs and alcohol because they aren’t financially secure? Why not? Are drugs and alcohol the reward for having a financial cushion? What else are the rewards? Cigarettes? Caffeine? Sweets? Soda? Art? I’m trying to draw out the line of thinking because I think sometimes these beliefs are hardwired without ever really questioning them and thinking through them out loud.

I don’t know you or your partner, but when I hear “that won’t create sustainable change” I can’t help but wonder if that’s really and truly what they’re worried about. If a house is on fire, you throw some water on it. And then you discuss how can we prevent this house from catching on fire again. You don’t stand there observing the flames and say “well, we can’t throw water on it again, because it will just catch on fire again next summer.” It’s both. That’s how we help people in crisis. We put out the fire and we also try to reinforce the house to prevent the next fire. Maybe we look at the greater context to find out why that house keeps catching on fire. Is it located next to a restaurant that dumps it’s toxic trash in the backyard of the house? Is it downwind from an explosives manufacturer. You get my point, you don’t stand there and debate these things while the house is on fire.

So have your partner listen to this episode and keep talking it out. I could imagine you being a great team to fight injustices because there is space for the short term fire fighting as well as the systemic changes. Please just make sure your partner is actually ready to do the deep work, not just standing on the sidelines tearing down all of your efforts.

To submit your letter to the show, email spenddonateinvest@gmail.com

To support the show visit buymeacoffee.com/spenddonate

Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/spenddonate)
Transcript

Today’s letter is about a listener who wonders about giving money to a person with a cardboard sign. Here’s the letter:

Last weekend, my partner and I were out walking our dog and I gave a guy $20. He had a sign that said he'd had a bad year and needed help. He was in pretty bad shape and the way I saw it, we would've just wasted the money ordering lattes on Postmates, but my partner flipped out. He said the guy would 'blow the money on alcohol and drugs' and that twenty bucks won't make any 'sustainable change.' What do you think? 

Well, this isn’t a relationship advice show, so I’ll refrain, no matter how much I am bursting at the seams, from understanding why your partner flipped out on you about how you decided to spend this money. Some day, maybe there will be a spin off podcast on money in relationships, but for now we are here to discuss how we donate, spend and invest in ways to make this world a little better.

So the fundamental debate you’re having is whether or not giving a person with a cardboard sign $20 will make any “sustainable change” as your partner calls it. Your partner predicts that the guy will ‘blow the money on alcohol and drugs.’

We have a long history of not trusting poor people to handle money. And an even longer history of over-trusting that rich people know what to do with money. It’s a story as old as time. As a result, we have built a lot of middle men and middle steps to supposedly protect the money from being blown. Not to protect the people who actually needed the help, but to protect the money. That’s why we don’t just give hurricane survivors a check to figure out how to get their lives back on track, we give them a shelter, with specified dimensions that probably weren't even designed locally with an understanding of what is most appropriate for that neighborhood, let alone that specific family. We don’t give the village members $500 to figure out how to build a well that fits their cultural and geographic needs, we spend $3,000 building a well in Sweden and then we hope that the villagers can adapt it to their needs in the developing country. Not only do we provide homes or wells or textbooks that don’t fit the local needs, but we have also added a lot of extra costs by adding in all of these middle men. 

And here’s the ironic part, we know that when we just give people the money directly, we reduce the time they will have to wait, they get to keep all of the money we intended for them without losing it to middle men, and they are able to apply the money to their lives with a surgeon’s accuracy for how they need and want to use it. So, if you really want to help someone, just give them the money. 

But to be honest, I think there’s also an odd moral hand wringing that we need to address here. This concern that the guy with the cardboard sign will use some or all of the money to buy drugs and alcohol. In two words, so what? Is your partner sure that poor people use more drugs and alcohol than rich people? Based on my observations occupying both types of spaces, I’m not sure that’s the case at all. Or is his point that poor people shouldn’t be buying drugs and alcohol because they aren’t financially secure? Why not? Are drugs and alcohol the reward for having a financial cushion? What else are the rewards? Cigarettes? Caffeine? Sweets? Soda? Art? I’m trying to draw out the line of thinking because I think sometimes these beliefs are hardwired without ever really questioning them and thinking through them out loud.

I don’t know you or your partner, but when I hear “that won’t create sustainable change” I can’t help but wonder if that’s really and truly what they’re worried about. If a house is on fire, you throw some water on it. And then you discuss how can we prevent this house from catching on fire again. You don’t stand there observing the flames and say “well, we can’t throw water on it again, because it will just catch on fire again next summer.” It’s both. That’s how we help people in crisis. We put out the fire and we also try to reinforce the house to prevent the next fire. Maybe we look at the greater context to find out why that house keeps catching on fire. Is it located next to a restaurant that dumps it’s toxic trash in the backyard of the house? Is it downwind from an explosives manufacturer. You get my point, you don’t stand there and debate these things while the house is on fire.

So have your partner listen to this episode and keep talking it out. I could imagine you being a great team to fight injustices because there is space for the short term fire fighting as well as the systemic changes. Please just make sure your partner is actually ready to do the deep work, not just standing on the sidelines tearing down all of your efforts.

To submit your letter to the show, email spenddonateinvest@gmail.com

To support the show visit buymeacoffee.com/spenddonate