Charity

Outrage Over Cut Funding to Meals on Wheels is Stupid

Your indignant fury over the possible elimination of the 4% contribution the government provides to budget for Meals on Wheels is both objectively overwrought and dumb.
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Pictured: The aftermath of Donald Trump’s previous attempt to destroy aid for retirees.
Unless you’ve deleted your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram account, you’ve probably heard about Donald and Melania Trump’s attempt to single-handedly crash Meals on Wheels into a brick wall of budget cuts and hasten the demise of the elderly, infirm, and poor… Most likely as part of their diabolical plan to finally clear those deadbeats out of their low-income housing so Trump can build more casinos.
(In the unlikely event that someone from CNN is reading this and is debating whether or not to use it as an “anonymous source,” that was sarcasm.)
 However, if your first reaction to this news was to immediately share an article or image declaring how we could fund Meals on Wheels for a thousand years if only Melania would just stop buying solid-gold flatware for about five seconds, then you’re part of the problem. It’s easy to feel angry when you see the extravagant lifestyle the first family lives while simultaneously hearing about how innocent charities are getting their shoe-string budgets slashed by Washington, but is this how we fix the it?
Don’t get me wrong: The idea of Donald Trump sucking at the teat of the American tax-payer for his own personal pleasure is a mental image that is deeply disturbing for a whole shopping basket full of reasons. The PROBLEM is that the entire argument being made by this fabricated hub-bub is grounded solely in that mental image; built exclusively on the fact that at least 1/3 of the populace and 3/3 of the media are convinced that the Trumps are stealing everyone’s gold and hoarding it in a cave beneath New York City like a family of gaudy dragons.
melaniadragon
“Tonight on Rachel Maddow…”
Unfortunately, when it’s framed in those terms, that outrage is completely misdirected, fallaciously over-exaggerated, and ultimately very silly, and I think you need to rephrase or rethink why you care. The whole affair has become a glorious exercise in misdirection, bias confirmation, and psychological projection. That’s a pretty heavy accusation, but let’s cover some things real quick:
1: This Was Never About Meals on Wheels.
This was never about Meals on Wheels for the media, it definitely was never about Meals on Wheels for the Democrats, and, in all honestly, was probably not really about Meals on Wheels for you either.
This whole thing started because the President’s proposed budget has a veritable army of belt-tightening cuts for a large swathe of agencies, organizations, and non-profits, almost each and every one of which has SOMEONE throwing apoplectic fits. It’s sparked hot debates about whether or not the federal government should be subsidizing non-profits, steering the direction of culture, or micro-managing education to begin with. The progressive left doesn’t like having these arguments, both because these arguments are hard and because the idea of Trump controlling art, charities, and schools creates a lot of cognitive dissonance. However, they can’t say they want to keep increasing federal power creep to pave the way for Hillary’s 2020 come-back, so instead they roll out what is literally one of the most sympathetic and inoffensive charities of all time: Meals on Wheels.
Suddenly, we have a completely different narrative. Innocent charity workers, busily baking healthy meals for the elderly, when an evil billionaire breaks down their door with a fire ax and tells them he’s cutting the power and repossessing all their ovens to use in his upscale steakhouse? This has gone from a debate over federal subsidies to something that’s two celebrity guest stars away from being a late 80’s television special.
But the real kicker?
2: Meals on Wheels Isn’t Even Directly Funded by the Government
No, seriously. Meals on Wheels doesn’t receive direct funding from the federal government, and their INDIRECT funding, as dispersed by local municipalities with money from the federal Older Americans Act along with any NON-federal funding provided by the state, accounts for less than THREE PERCENT of their yearly budget.
It’s the proportional equivalent of what you spend on a couple of candy bars during your weekly pilgrimage to the grocery store, and not even all of it comes from Washington.
And that’s just the national average. In some areas, it barely breaks 1% of the local chapter’s annual funding.
Some estimates place the federal government’s annual contributions to Meals on Wheels is right around a quarter of a million dollars. That’s not a lot of money by federal standards, right? So why can’t Donald just skip one of his exotic golfing trips and just give money to the poor already?
Donald Trump - Celebrity Style
Eat your heart out, starving old people. Real Men Have Curves.
3: Sorry. This Has Nothing To Do With Presidential Spending Either.
Everyone, left AND right, is desperate to paint the Trump family as this money pit of ostentatious spending… including the Donald himself, who seems to be weirdly committed to his public image as a cartoon rich person come to life.
Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that lavish spending by the First Family has become the modern norm, regardless of party affiliation.
And you know what? It’s a legitimate problem. It’s a problem for the First Family, and for politicians in general.
HOWEVER, we’re lying to ourselves if we’re pretending that this is an issue that we’re only just noticing now.
If you’re having an aneurysm because Melania Trump doesn’t want to move into the White House (or whatever costly activity that Vox and Salon’s Facebook pages say she needs to give up), but had absolutely nothing to say when Michelle Obama took a government jet to go dress shopping, then your sincerity is in question. Conversely, if you spent eight years ripping Obama for golfing on weekends, and are now rabidly defending the Donald for doing the same thing, your sincerity is in question.
For or against, or somewhere in between, we need to treat presidential spending equally. And we need to stop pretending that limiting some random aspect of the First Family’s leisure expense is a realistic solution to whatever line-item we support in the budget.
4: Governments Shouldn’t Subsidize Charities.
It’s the job of the general public.
I fundamentally dislike the idea of the government sponsoring, financially supporting, or subsidizing charities and non-profits; especially ones that were never explicitly tied to government programs. I believe that people need to be intentional and proactive in their efforts to support their communities, rather than lazily waving their hand at the IRS saying “You take care of it.”
It’s the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism in the United States: The State handling all matters of charity vs. the people handling it.
First of all, I am a lot more comfortable and confident in personally deciding which non-profit causes I want to support with my finances than I am in Uncle Sam’s ability to do so. Second, there is something deeply unsettling about giving the government carte blanche permission to pick winners and losers among a WIDE field of charities, some of which I may support and some of which I may oppose, and then raise all of our taxes to force us to pay for them regardless of personal opinion.
This isn’t a crazed, libertarian screed against social policies writ large. It’s a concern over an unnecessary government mandate regarding an area of life that does perfectly fine on its own. Frankly, in an age of interminable national debt, it’s a discussion economists think we should be having about a lot of things. Over 90% of funding for Meals on Wheels America comes from corporations, trust funds, and private citizens. So why is Washington’s lowered involvement even a concern?
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“Here. Let me ‘Donate’ that for you.”
5: Meals on Wheels is a Charity. Which Means It Can Be Supported by People Like You.
Now, statistics say the odds are pretty low that you have ever personally interacted with the official Meals on Wheels America organization. Frankly, the odds are still kind of low that you’re actively involved with whatever your local equivalent organization is.
My generation, the Millennial Generation, is supposedly the most “civic minded” and “socially aware” generation born in the twentieth century. And we are frothing at the mouth because the federal government is refusing to cut back on luxuries in order to do our charity work for us.
Maybe it’s time we actually stepped into the shoes that all those overly-smug sociologists keep handing to us. Instead of just running our mouths about wanting the Trumps to just commit seppuku while signing a “Fund all charities 4ever plz” bill, we could actually do something about it.
Do you know how much money we could raise? Go look at the last Facebook post ranting about how Trump is personally gunning down the last survivors of his Meals on Wheels massacre, and look at the number of likes and shares.
If every one of those people gave up their daily Starbucks and donated it to Meals on Wheels America, we would outstrip the government’s yearly contribution in a MONTH.
Seriously. Just this post from The Week. Around 3,500 people. $4 a day. 30 days.
That’s over four-hundred grand.
No matter how many vapid “#CoffeeAddict” tags you add to your Instagram picture of your morning pick-me-up, it’s still a luxury. You don’t need it any more than Donald needs to golf.
trumpsandpit
“Take THAT, China!”
And guess what?
People are already doing it.
Reports say that Meals on Wheels has been receiving up to FIFTY TIMES its usual amount of donations since this debacle began.
So WHY doe we need to government to raise taxes, filter money through layers of bureaucracy, and lose an astonishing amount along the way, when we can LITERALLY GET THE JOB DONE FROM OUR PHONES? You don’t even have to leave your couch.
THIS is why the outrage is stupid: It was fabricated out of nothing, to cover a funding issue the government doesn’t even need to be involved in, because most of the people sharing the Facebook memes are too lazy to fix the problem themselves.
If you’re a progressive, and you hate the Trump’s lavish luxury spending when you think they should be helping vets and disabled people get hot food, then put your money where your mouth is, and donate your coffee cash to Meals on Wheels. If you’re a conservative, and you hate government spending and think the private sector can handle it, then put your money where your mouth is, and donate your coffee cash to Meals on Wheels.
This isn’t Trump’s problem. This isn’t the government’s problem. It’s our problem.
Still angry about Meals on Wheels? Skip Starbucks. Use a K-Cup. Donate to charity.
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 ~ Louis Petolicchio lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania. He has been actively organizing a company of adventurers to steal back his gold from Trump Mountain, but is still seeking a good burglar. Follow him on Twitter!
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Why I’m not doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge; Problems and Alternatives

No, it’s not the great justification that slacktivists so desperately want it to be, but it’s being treated that way.
(Before you hate me, you’ve got to read this one through to the end.)

 

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You pretty much can’t step off your virtual front porch without wading through a myriad of “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos these days, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Anyone and everyone with a video camera and an internet connection is hopping on board the damp parade of charity awareness, grabbing a drywall bucket, a bag of ice, and going to town.

For those of you somehow unfamiliar with the Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s a movement started by Peter Frates, a man living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and his friend, the late Corey Griffin earlier this summer to raise funds and awareness for ALS research by filming yourself getting a bucket of ice-water on your head and then challenging your friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate a sum of money to ALSA (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association.)

And not just us filthy commoners; FAMOUS people are doing it! A LOT of famous people. To name a few:
Conan O’Brian has done it.
Jimmy Fallon has done it.
Robert Downey Jr. has done it.
Martha Freaking Stewart has done it.

 

Capture_48289THE ENTIRE BLUE ANGELS FLYING TEAM has done it.

As of today, even a former President of the United States has done it:
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And guess what? The viral publicity stunt looks like it’s actually working, too, having increased donations to ALSA from last year by a crazy huge amount. We’re talking like… 1000%.

 

I’m still not going to do it, nor am I going to donate to ALSA. Here’s why:

On a broader, social level, I think this entire viral campaign is just another form of slacktivism in social media circles where quirky self-promotion in the name of “awareness” is placed far above actual involvement, effort, and contribution to the given charity. This is cultivating the unhealthy notion that raising “awareness” with a twitter hashtag and then calling it a day is not only admirable but preferable to actually taking action. The only reason I can’t accuse this movement of being “armchair activism” is because it’s usually done outside. A more subtle side-effect is that this campaign has a good chance of ultimately becoming harmful to other charities this year.

On a more personal level, I tend to devote most of my time, money, and effort to charities that I either have a strong personal connection with or charities whose messages, methods, and results I agree with and admire. The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t really have any sort of personal connection/experience with ALS or ALS research, and without that, I would need to be sold on the charity itself. Unfortunately, I strongly disagree with some of ALSA’s research methods, and I do not wish to donate to a foundation which endorses practices I fundamentally disagree with.  The fact that not donating for these personal reasons alone has made me a bad person in the eyes of some of my Ice Bucket Challenge friends is not only ridiculous but morally reprehensible. There are perfectly valid reasons to refuse to donate to an organization, and choosing one over another should not have any effect on perception in the bizarre “Social  Awareness Olympics” that seem to be taking place online.

If you haven’t already quit reading in a righteous rage, then let me explain, starting with the weird relationship between slacktivism and “awareness.”

*ahem*

 

Awareness is not a commodity!

One of my biggest pet peeves, this has been among my mantras for years, and I will probably still be shouting it as they lower me into my grave. My biggest critique of social media “awareness” campaigns has been and always will be “Good job. We are now aware. What next?” But that’s where it stops.
“I did it! I hitched my Twitter handle to this viral sensation and I get to feel good about all the good I’m doing!”

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But… what else?
The problem is that, too often, there ISN’T anything else. To give credit where credit is due, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge deserves mad props for at least OFFERING OPTIONS that involve legitimate avenues of making a difference. That’s probably why they’ve been successful; their campaign didn’t stop at “Change your profile pic to Lou Gehrig for a month for awareness, lulz.”

Awareness does have its place and usefulness, as the quote from Gary Haugen and the “END IT” movement (and offshoot from the International Justice Mission, a charity that is ALWAYS worth your time) so pithily put it:

“Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern-day slavery. But nothing will ever happen until we are.”

However, stopping with JUST “awareness” of something all by itself is totally useless.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a very clever gimmick, but at the end of the day, that’s all it is; a gimmick. It’s a gimmick that proposes a continuation of the same elevation of “awarness,” through convenient, albeit fun, self-promotion at the cost of ACTUALLY helping.

 

“But… you JUST said what a wild success this campaign was! You torpedoed your own argument before you even started!”

Yes, I know. I’ve seen this NY Times article, and others like it, used with all the delicate tact of bludgeon by at least half a dozen people on my Facebook feed as the smoking gun evidence that finally justifies slacktivism and exonerates years of vapid hashtags.

Except not really, because the problem at large is a systemic one involving the mentality of the public at large. No one is denying that the campaign has generated a ridiculous amount of money for ALSA this quarter. But due to natural market fatigue, it’s not going to last… and the odds are very good that this massive influx of cash will not occur again for a long time. What WILL remain is the personal attitude encouraged by the Challenge.

 

To borrow the title of a Vice.com article by Ariel Pardes, “Dumping a bucket of ice on your head does not make you a philanthropist.”

It doesn’t. Being a philanthropist makes you a philanthropist. You have to actually give money. The article makes some very good points regarding the problem-mentality surrounding campaigns like these, where people are more likely to do something post-worthy than donate money.

Bill-Gates-vs.-Mark-Zuckerberg-ALS-Ice-Bucket-ChallengePictured: Philanthropists. (Both Gates and Zuckerberg did the challenge AND donated to the cause.)

 Another article in Time magazine talks about the problem of reconciling a campaign than has raised a ton of money with the fact that it paints dumping ice-water on yourself as preferable to donating.

Yes, it HAS generated a ton of money, and no one is denying the amount of good this campaign can do… but most of that money is not coming from everyday challenge takers. VERY few of the people soaking themselves are still donating money. An alternate form of the challenge is presented as donated a small sum and get soaked, or avoid the showering and donate a large.
I have seen exactly TWO Challenge videos, out of the huge number posted by friends, that advocate this.
Most of the people doing the challenge are not donating money. Most of it is coming from those aforementioned A-list celebrities who are doing both the challenge AND donating gobs of money.

 


Or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, doing the Challenge WITH gobs of money.

Public figures like Sheen, Bill Gates, and even President Bush are all writing big checks in addition to doing the challenge, while others, like President Obama are simply donating right off the bat.

Of course, even a large number of celebrities are just dumping water on themselves and challenging others without donating… and some without even mentioning ALS at ALL.
And you know who is calling them out on it?
Freaking Steve-O from Jackass.

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This guy.

The Challenge had potential, but a lot of people, including many of our celebrity darlings, are doing just for the heck of it, and it’s a shame that Steve-O of all people has to be the one calling people out for it.

 

“Ok, so some people are doing it for the wrong reasons, but how can this possibly hurt other charities?”

Two words: Market Cannibalization.

Several articles and economists have raised questions about whether or not the huge amount of money raised is going to eat away at the funding of other charities and research organizations, and so far… all signs point to “yes.”

Basically, it means that it is widely accepted that the amount of money people are willing to donate each year is a limited pool, and one organization vastly dwarfing the others will see the others income suffer. What’s worse, some are postulating that simply doing the challenge in lieu of donating triggers the same sense of “Moral Licensing” that giving money does, meaning that the challenge could actually be shrinking the overall payload.

This Quartz article has the best breakdown that I’ve seen of this phenomenon, and I would strongly encourage you to read it.

Neither the writers of Quartz, nor I, are condemning ALSA for generating funds. It’s a contest that’s run every year between non-profits to see who can seize the greatest windfall, and it has been this way for some time. It’s just how charity works; a non-profit business is still a business… and that’s ok.

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However, with the veracity and ferocity of “viral campaigns,” the ones that actually work, the pendulum swing of non-profit income disparity only shows signs of growing wider and wider each year. “Moral Licensing,” which is basically the inner sense of “I’ve done my good deed for the year by doing X” is becoming a big problem and will only get bigger with time.

William MacAskill, the writer of that Quartz article sums up the problem well:

“We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.”

However, he also presents a solution:

Stop giving money out of obligation to solicited charity and pick a non-profit that drives you to commit to long lasting behavioral change.

The solution is sweet, and simple. Find a non-profit that you can not only support regularly, but get involved with to work towards a common goal. It removes the sense of “Moral Licensing” and encourages contributions to be more meaningful, more regular, and more often. Don’t make your non-profit contribution a source of “likes” and “re-tweets.” Make it part of your identity.

 

I’m not donating to ALSA because ALSA is not part of my identity… and I don’t wish to make it part.

ANY kind of Motor Neuron Disease is a terrible, terrible thing, and I pray that my loved ones never suffer from it. However, as it has not been any kind of prominent fixture in my life, it does not encourage any kind of behavioral change. I would be donating just out of guilt and social obligation.
More importantly, I cannot donate to ALSA on moral grounds. Currently, wide swathes of ALS research is done with embryonic stem cells, and ALSA does extensive work with them. As anyone familiar with me knows, I am extremely pro-life, and that forms one of the fairly immovable cornerstones of my worldview. I find the method of growing and harvesting embryos for stem cells to violate those beliefs.
With this in mind, I cannot, in good conscience, contribute to an organization I have no vested interest in, that actively pushes practices I cannot reconcile.

This is not a demand that anyone pro-life stop donating. Donating (not dumping water) to ALS research is a worthy cause, and for concerned parties, you can specify that you do not what your donation to fund embryonic stem cell research.

If you have already donated, or are planning to donate, you have my respect.

If you have done nothing BUT the Challenge, then I encourage you to donate after the fact, if not to ALSA, then another charity you identify closely with.

While I may have no personal, vested interest in either, my own charities of choice have been, and probably always will be The American Foundation for Children with AIDS, and the International Justice Mission; devoted to providing treatment to AIDS-stricken children in Africa and stopping global human trafficking respectively.

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If you can’t settle on another non-profit to direct time/money to, I would highly recommend either of these.

 

So I present a counter-challenge: Don’t film yourself doing the Ice-Bucket Challenge. Film yourself donating the money, or donating the time, because THAT’S what matters.

I am all for giving to charity, and I strongly believed that people should be involved in it. But I believe that involvement should be genuine; involvement that goes beyond hashtags for awareness. If you’re going to donate to ALS, then don’t stop at the Challenge this year. Make a concerted effort to donate EVERY year. If that’s not something you can do or want to do, then find another foundation that does more to speak to you.

Don’t let your social media pressure you into defining your charity life. Make a commitment, stick with it, and you might see something amazing come of it.

 

 

Louis Petolicchio lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.