Perusing a paper copy of the NYT the other day I noticed an odd little phrase at the bottom of a column buried deep in the first section, "remember the neediest." It looked more like a space filler than anything significant, butI found the same phrase repeated throughout the section. It struck me as a bit odd, this random reminder to remember those in need. So, I turned to my trusty research tool, Google, and did some investigating.
It will be no surprise to regular readers of The Times and NYC residents in particular that the phrase is not at all random. In 1912, the NYT publisher Adolph S. Ochs, in the wake of a thought provoking encounter with a poor man on the street the previous year, sent out a reporter to collect stories of "the Hundred Neediest Cases in New York."1 The December 15, 1912 inaugural article ran under the headline: SANTA CLAUS PLEASE TAKE NOTICE! HERE ARE NEW YORK’S 100 NEEDIEST CASES. Having grabbed Santa Claus's attention, the article began: "Fathoms deep beneath the exhilaration and joyousness of Christmas there is a world of desolation and hunger which few of the dwellers in light and air have had time or chance to realize: the world of famine in the midst of plenty; of cruel heart and body hunger with bounty in sight, but not in reach; the world which only the organized charities have been able to hold above the line between life itself and death."2 Following this dramatic introduction were 100 'Cases,' written in equally florid prose, and numbered in order to preserve confidentiality.
In its first year, 117 readers contributed $3,630.88. Over the course of 96 years (not counting this year), the Fund has raised over $229 million.3 The Fund no longer gives to the 100 neediest individuals, instead distributing funds through selected social service agencies. Heather Mac Donald documents not merely a change in the manner of distributing funds, but in the philosophy behind the annual appeal which originally had at its heart "a crucial moral distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor."4 Each 'case' documented the situation of someone in 'deserving' need. Mac Donald's survey of what constitutes deserving in the eyes of The Times and its readers is worth a look.
Mac Donald's central point however, is that by 1969, "Gone were the holiday paeans to the generosity of ordinary citizens; gone, too, was the paper's honesty about self-induced misfortune. Instead, this was the moment that the Times turned sour and became an apologist for the welfare state." No longer did the elite hold the poor their own rigorous standard, in which "moral character determined the strength of a person's claim for assistance," and that struggle overwhelmed by adversity deserved generosity. Instead, poverty is a result of "vast, impersonal social and economic forces that supposedly determined individual fate." According to Mac Donald, the shift from the deserving poor to a situation in which "need became the sole criterion for aid, with moral character all but irrelevant" is a story which "traces the rise of moral relativism among opinion and policy makers, the triumph of the entitlement ethos, and the transformation of the New York Times itself into a proponent of victimology and double standards."5
As an unabashed fan of the "welfare state," or at the very least, of a society that takes seriously its obligation to care for all of those who participate in its success, there are a number of points on which Mac Donald (and her sympatica, Ayn Rand) and I simply disagree. I believe the shift from "deserving" individuals to "need" springs from a growing recognition of just how complicated, and systematic, is the prison of poverty. I hardly think this is a sign of moral relativism.
As a Christian, I am even more disturbed. Jesus nowhere says, "feed the hungry widow that worked for her food but got ripped off by some evil bossman who probably molested her in the process." He simply says, feed the hungry. Need is Jesus' sole criterion. Jesus' response to those who complain about receiving the same wages as those who worked half as much time is to point out that God does not appear to judge based on 'worthiness.' St. John Chrysostom, who eloquently fanned the flames of hell for the rich who do not share their wealth, stresses that almsgiving is a virtue in itself. Whether the poor person deserves the alms is irrelevant to the imperative to give. All that matters for the poor person is the “one plea, his want and his standing in need: do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger” (On Wealth and Poverty, p. 52). Almsgivers are not meant to be judges. The elite who sets themselves up as judge over the needs of others are like “those who set up those games and give no prizes at all until they see others punishing themselves” (1Cor 188B). The refusal to be generous to another person, made in the image of God, is, according to Chrysostom, the heights of inhumanity.
Deserving and undeserving poverty is a moral category only for those who sit in judgment, not those who seek to serve needs. The Neediest Cases Fund may not be perfect in its motivation or implementation, but it is hardly immoral.
All administrative costs of the Fund are covered by The Times. The current campaign began Nov. 4 and will end Feb. 8. A collection of articles, including the all-important 'how to donate' instructions, are available here on The Times website.
John Chrysostom. Baptismal Instructions. Translated by Paul W. Harkins Ancient Christian Writers; the Works of the Fathers in Translation, No. 31. Westminster, Md.,: Newman Press, 1963
John Chrysostom. On Wealth and Poverty. Translated by Catharine P. Roth. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984.
John Chrysostom. On Repentance and Almsgiving. Translated by Gus George Christo The Fathers of the Church, a New Translation ; V. 96. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998.