Remembering the Needy All Year

Nearly a quarter of annual giving by individuals occurs between late November and Jan. 1. That's twice the normal rate and it's easy to see why. People feel compassion toward the needy around the holidays and are motivated to make donations before the tax year ends.

This spike in giving between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the influx of funds enables charities serving low-income people to meet their needs throughout the upcoming year. On the other hand, this heightened generosity masks the level of animus toward poor people in the U.S.

Last month, right here in The Huffington Post, Linda Tirado described how she often spends her limited income on junk food and cigarettes -- the very sorts of behavior that raises eyebrows and fuels resentment. Though, that's not the reason Tirado's words have gone viral over the past several weeks. Rather, it's because they shockingly uncover why living this way makes so much sense to people facing circumstances like hers. In juggling motherhood and school with working two low-wage jobs, she constantly feels exhausted, defeated, and depressed. She simply doesn't have the wherewithal to act in ways that might lead to a better future.

There are millions of similarly jarring stories among the 15 percent of Americans living in poverty. These are people bereft of hope because they're struggling to make ends meet while lacking the sorts of opportunities to get ahead that existed in prior generations. A 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that 43 percent of those raised in the bottom income quintile stay there as adults while an astounding 70 percent do not make it to the middle quintile.

These figures highlight why people experiencing hard times need help accessing the American dream. Even though there are no magic bullets for enabling people to move their lives forward, giving can make a significant difference. Charities from coast to coast have track records of efficiently using their donations to fuel opportunity. They mentor at-risk youngsters and teach them marketable job skills, offer kids an enriched early childhood education, make college more affordable, and move the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

Supporting these charities makes good economic sense. A report by the Center for American Progress calculates the total cost of childhood poverty across the educational, criminal justice, and healthcare systems to be an astronomical $500 billion a year. This is why the University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman has argued that spending on early childhood education is perhaps the best investment we can make in the future productivity of our society.

So as we continue to open our hearts to the needy this holiday season, let's give ourselves a precious gift too: the wisdom to retain this feeling of compassion throughout the entire year to come. Doing so is not only socially just; it's economically essential.

Ira Silver is a professor of sociology at Framingham State University. He blogs at Opportunity For All and is the author of Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream.

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