As long as human beings have gathered together in society, provisions have been made for the aid of the poor. In Europe, it was the church that came to shoulder most of this burden, granting a percentage of its income to those in need. In their excellent work, Life in a Medieval Castle, Joseph and Frances Gies write that “According to custom [the parish priest] returned a third of his revenues in alms and hospitality to the poor.”
Charitable offerings commonly came from the secular nobility as well. The earliest extant records of a castle budget, those of Countess Eleanor de Montfort, date from the 13th century, and provide specifically, and considerably, “For the poor.” Typical among the castle staff was an “almoner, who had charge of offerings to the poor.”
The Gieses quote at length a manual for almoners from the 13th century:
Visit for charity’s sake the sick, the lepers, the captive, the poor, the widows and others in want and the wanderers in the countryside, and to receive discarded horses, clothing, money and other gifts, bestowed in alms, and to distribute them faithfully. He ought also by frequent exhortations to spur the king to liberal almsgiving, especially on saints’ days, and to implore him not to bestow his robes, which are of great price, upon players, flatterers, fawners, talebearers, or minstrels, but to command them to be used to augment his almsgiving.
To be sure, this was not a very good time to be alive — even for the rich. Life expectancy and child-mortality rates were horrendous. Not even the privileged were spared: Queen Anne, who ruled England from 1702 until her death in 1714, had 17 children, none of whom survived to adulthood. The vast majority of people were poor. Furthermore, they were not free but were instead tied to the land and obligated to work for a lord. Society was stagnant.
It required the liberalization of European society, and the resultant Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, western Europe, and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, to raise the vast majority of people from the muck and mire of a life that, until then, was best described as nasty, brutish and short.
Something amazing happened during that period. Relative stability in the political realm and greater security for property meant more people could safely accumulate wealth, spurring tremendous economic growth and increasing trade. Tariffs were lowered, and barriers to entry in various industries reduced or eliminated. New businesses were started, and existing businesses expanded.
Furthermore, revolutionary technological developments raised crop yields and the productivity of workers — and, by extension, their profitability. Wealth rose accordingly. In the United States, for example, real purchasing power for the average worker tripled during the 19th century, even as working hours were declining (see Bernard Siegan’s Economic Liberties and the Constitution).
Critics of capitalism and free markets are usually more comfortable in the world of aesthetics than that of facts. The pre-capitalist world, claimed the Romantics, was a virtual Garden of Eden, and the modern age a Dickensian nightmare.
The former assertion was complete nonsense, but we can admit there was some truth to the latter: important discoveries in medicine and hygiene, alongside an expanding food supply, meant an explosion in population. According to Ludwig von Mises, the population of England actually doubled between 1760 and 1830. Housing and sanitation needed time to catch up, and in the meantime filth and hard work were the norm. But this had been the norm since the fall of Rome. The key difference was that for the first time in over a millennium, significant, noticeable progress was being made in the movement of human beings from a society of the privileged few to one of an increasingly affluent many.
And the less fortunate — “the sick, the lepers, the captive, the poor, the widows and others in want” — far from being left behind, benefited tremendously from this growing wealth. Especially in America, at a time when there was no income tax, the wealthiest members of society were distributing alms and endowing charitable foundations like never before.
One of them, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, mused that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Over the course of his life he gave away over $350 million, money used to build over 2,500 libraries, to establish a pension fund for teachers, and to fund institutions of higher learning (institutions that, ironically, are more likely than not to denounce capitalism today).
John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, used his wealth “to create the modern systematic approach of targeted philanthropy,” according to his Wikipedia page.
He was able to do this through the creation of foundations that had a major effect on medicine, education, and scientific research.
His foundations pioneered the development of medical research, and were instrumental in the eradication of hookworm and yellow fever. He is also the founder of both the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University. He was a devoted Northern Baptist and supported many church-based institutions throughout his life.
Average Americans, too, donated liberally to philanthropic causes. They did this through direct donations to charities like the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, and the YMCA, but also by establishing and participating in mutual-aid societies — voluntary organizations founded by tradesmen to provide pensions, sick pay, and accident insurance, and even to help cover funeral costs for members and their families. In 1890, journalist Jacob Riis said that “New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help.”
Even more remarkable than the enormous level of charitable giving in times past is the amount of money Americans give today. Despite the lagging economy and high unemployment, Americans gave record amounts in 2011 — the latest year for which figures are available — almost $300 billion, a 4 percent increase over 2010, reports USA Today (November 27). And again, it’s not just wealthy corporations that are providing this money: “The vast majority of money donated to charity in the United States comes from individuals, 81% of it.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a private charity was even feeding FEMA workers.
U2’s Bono has castigated Americans for only offering “crumbs” to needy foreigners, but he and other critics conveniently fail to acknowledge that private “foreign aid” is even greater than what the U.S. government distributes (which comes from American taxpayers to begin with). For example, as John Stossel wrote in Capitalism magazine (November 29, 2006),
After the Asian Tsunami [in 2004], the U.S. government pledged $900 million to tsunami relief. American individuals donated $2 billion — three times what government gave — in food, clothing, and cash. Private charities could barely keep up with the donations.
Americans are far more likely to give to charity than are people in any other country, prompting Arthur Brooks, writing for the American, to dub ours “A Nation of Givers.”
Charity has played an important role throughout the history of civilization. People have always endeavored to aid their fellow human beings, especially in those societies, like the United States, where individuals are more free to make and accumulate wealth. Food, clothing, medicine, and education have all been effectively and efficiently delivered to the constituencies in need. The record stands for itself.
Sadly, with the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms more and more poor people came to see government as their benefactor, with tragic and devastating results: unemployment, teen pregnancy, drug use and addiction, dependency, and crime have all increased among the very groups that these social programs were meant to help.
Approximately $350 billion is taken out of the economy every year for the poor, yet a large percentage of that money never does a thing for those living in poverty. As Sheldon Richman observed, “much of that money does not get to the poor but feeds the bureaucracy and their middle-class suppliers.” A vast, bloated and powerful special interest group has sprung up around the welfare state, siphoning off valuable resources.