One of the reasons for the possible rehabilitation of charity is especially paradoxical, given philanthropy’s technocratic pretensions. Over the past decade, as groups have become more sophisticated at assessing the impact of their work, and as digital payment systems have advanced throughout the developing world, a number of carefully designed field experiments have affirmed the effectiveness of unconditional cash transfers to the poor. Such charitable transfers challenge assumptions, dating back centuries, that impoverished recipients will squander money given directly to them. It turns out that the poor often know much better than outside experts how to improve their own condition…
…Post-credit-crisis frustration with Western capitalism points to a final reason behind charity’s possible resurgence. Traditional charity has long operated outside the rules of the marketplace. This is, in fact, one reason modern critics have dismissed its ministrations: They believe it too often encourages idleness. On the other hand, during the Gilded Age, philanthropy became associated with the contributions of the financial elite and so was increasingly implicated in the economic systems in which their wealth was produced. Recently, the coupling has been consecrated with a neologism: philanthro-capitalism, which describes the belief, as the coiners of the term explained, that “the rich can save the world ” by channeling market forces toward philanthropic ends.
Given those associations, charity can be cast in opposition to capitalism. It is not surprising that one of most powerful critics of the “deified market,” Pope Francis, is also one of our age’s most passionate defenders of traditional charity. (In case you are wondering whether the pope thinks you should give to panhandlers, the answer is “always” yes.)
This suggests a striking ideological reversal. Charity, especially as practiced by its Catholic acolytes, could claim both conservative and radical modes (see, for instance, the complex politics of Dorothy Day). But it was often understood by its critics as fundamentally reactionary, opposed to efforts at social transformation and rooted stubbornly in the belief that “the poor ye always have with you.”