The Language of Charity

Short post today: I’m trying to get better at these.

It’s fair to say that modern welfare ‘evolved’, in some ways, from the charitable projects maintained by the Church in the middle ages. How that evolution took place is a matter of argument. There are a lot of grand sweeping narratives about the changes in poor relief from the middle ages to the early modern to the modern period, with the Protestant Reformation, increasingly centralized states, and so forth being cited as contributing engines. These are matters of historical argument.

Regardless of the big engines of change in the matter of poor relief, one of the interesting ways it can be tracked is through changes in the language of charity. This has interesting implications for our current debates about the purview of welfare versus the purview of charity. On the subject of languages of charity, Miri Rubin writes:

“Although the language of medieval Christian charity always required a degree of help to ‘others’, a different and alternative idiom, an idiom of kinship, spiced with some of the traditional images of charity and love, came to articulate new choices. This development can be correlated to similar manifestations of the nature of co-operation in the structures of late medieval town government, in the preponderance of faction within it, and in the more tentative attitudes toward public office by those who would have constituted the natural office-holding elite in earlier times…These shifts in the language of charity, in which the dispositions toward giving were enshrined, were thoroughgoing and dramatic. The symbolic articulation of the charitable act was being wrested from its earlier institutional forms which were relatively open and inclusive; these older forms were being redesigned to ensure greater exclusivity and discrimination in allocation of relief funds, and altogether new types of relief were created in substantially altered social contexts.”

In other words, the way charity was explained — consider “we must help the poor and the stranger” versus “I must help my brother and neighbor” — correlated with broad institutional changes in how charity was rendered. Instead of hospitals serving as communal locations for a variety of services (a hostel-like capacity, a retirement-home-like capacity, a modern-hospital-like capacity, etc.) they gradually changed into sites for the working of private charity. Specifically, they lost their space for poor and sick people, and became primarily places for the keeping of elderly well-to-do people living on privately provided pensions. Rather than a community reaching out to ‘the other’, they became places where individuals reached out to people they had kinship with. And the language around charity either changed with the society, or pressed such changes along — or a little of both.

But human needs actually hadn’t changed all that much. Part of Rubin’s point is to demonstrate that the language we use to describe charity — who gets it, why, who gives it, why, what the goals are, when/where it should be done — can create certain charitable institutions and dispense with others, while the actual human needs remain more or less static. And this is directly applicable to how we think about charity and welfare now.

Think about the language we use for ‘welfare’ versus ‘public goods.’ Welfare is: the EITC, food stamps (SNAP), TANF, medicaid, etc. On the other hand, social security, veterans’ services, public schools, and so forth are typically not imagined to be welfare programs. Complicating matters, nearly all of these things — food assistance, schooling, care for the elderly, etc — were once thought of as matters of charity.

So what language do we use to stabilize our categories? ‘Earned’, ‘worked for’, ‘deserving’, ‘investment.’ For the social services that people we respect use, like social security and veterans’ services, we tend to cite service and/or work as evidence that the funds being spent on them are truly deserved. On the other hand, we tend to try to enforce work (even where some work already exists!) to make recipients of other kinds of benefits into ‘deserving’ figures. And, indeed, the caricatures of welfare recipients intended to impugn them (in order to slash welfare) always focus on their slovenliness and ingratitude, further marks against their lack of desert.

There are other languages of welfare (multiple different strains can co-exist) that inform how we view the justness or injustice of social programs. My purpose here is only to demonstrate how much work the language does in stabilizing categories that are actually unstable. There are surely ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people making use of all manner of programs, welfare or not; the idea that any set of persons is categorically lazy or undeserving is totally ridiculous on its own merits, such as they are. But the language of desert is so firmly attached to how we separate out these various programs that it bleeds into how we imagine the recipients. It becomes unclear whether SNAP is welfare because undeserving people get it while public school is good because all children deserve a good education; or whether undeserving people get SNAP because it’s welfare, while deserving kids get public school because every kid deserves a good education.

So don’t let language mess with your head. We can and should think way outside the current boxes on matters of welfare and charity, but language tends to be one of those boxes that is easy to forget if you’re not exactly paying attention to it. Worse, it can perpetuate ‘truths’ very easily by pretending to be descriptive when it is really prescriptive. This is something I think about a lot, and I hope you found this as interesting as I do.