When it comes to responding to poverty, most of us opt for individual acts of charity and compassion.
We think of "the poor" as one person after another needing our help today.
We aren't really put off by the realization that, unless many factors change, these same people will need our help again tomorrow. By the time we get to day or incident 5 or 6, our charitable impulses begin to wear thin. We begin to create narratives in our heads that justify our decisions to terminate our charitable instincts, reasoning that if the object of my recent charity would do his or her part, my resources wouldn't be needed.
We all know the drill, don't we?
Charity is about individuals. Individuals in need. Individuals with resources and the freedom to decide as individuals to help or not to help. Charity maintains the existing power differentials and relationships insuring that those with the wherewithal to "help" decide when to help and when to walk past folks suffering in need.
Charity settles for "poster children" results. Anecdotal stories and one-off success reports of individuals who, against great odds, manage to work their way out and up from the cruel clutches of poverty.
Charity concerns itself with the presenting symptoms and results of the presence of poverty. So, it works best in soup kitchens, food pantries, street feeding and giveaway programs of various sorts.
On the other hand, justice seeks equity resulting from a systemic response to poverty and the forces that support its existence.
Justice brings individuals together to work on collective solutions.
Justice wants to change rules and offer up sustainable, public responses to problems so large that they call for scalable solutions beyond the reach of uncoordinated, individual acts of kindness.
Justice wants to hit the reset button on a number of institutions.
Justice calls for new default positions and options.
If charity puts the spotlight on a few individuals who excel and escape, justice provides a tour through a renewed neighborhood or a high-functioning school system or an open health care benefit plan or a new company that employs hundreds of workers and pays a living wage.
Charity asks its questions about the individual.
Justice demands answers concerning scalable solutions to community-wide problems and challenges.
To be sure, charity and compassion are wonderful.
But, when compassionate people come together--rich and poor--to set in motion big, comprehensive changes that will open doors to new opportunity and pave highways out of poverty, justice and equity can be realized.
To adequately address the large problems associated with poverty we must move beyond individual acts of charity to work on collective efforts resulting in justice.