Conservatives often prompt the idea that the needy can be served by volunteerism even better than by publicly owned and run services (as we can see right off from the health care debate).
It’s rather logical to ask, then, if volunteerism, working in service to others for free, is to be expected on moral grounds from those who are able.
Right off the bat, I call to mind some passages in the 2007 book “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero, where the authors maintain that only within the nuclear and somewhat extended family can a determination “from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs” be made. I remember how that quote of Karl Marx was thrown around the barracks of Fort Eustis back in 1969 when I was in the Army. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has voiced similar ideas, that “It Takes a Family” (his 2005 book) to socialize people into meeting real needs.
But you can encircle the family with communities, and those with a country, so you can imagine how a moral expectation of service can fan out.
I can imagine, however, a mentality, where the poor could view some sort of structured personal attention or care from “the rich” as a moral entitlement, even in a “free” and conservative society. Off hand, that doesn’t strike me as particularly encouraging for developing healthful self-concepts among the disadvantaged. I’m recalling a time in kindergarten, in early 1949, when the teacher (who ran the class in her home) separated the class into “brownies” (who stayed downstairs – and I was one, despite that everyone was “white”) and “elves” (who got to sit in the living room upstairs). I felt like I was put into a defined underclass, yet entitled to expect attention. Maybe that did help shape some of the development issues I would have in the grade school years.
We don’t start out on life in the same place in line, to be sure. OK, we can get into the whole debate on the role of “privilege” in setting up moral expectations of people. There are different kinds of disadvantage. Of course, being born into poverty or in a totalitarian culture normally hurts once likely future station in life. But there is a perpendicular situation: within a particular family, which may be well-off, one is born with disability or a general lower level of capacity. It can happen between twins or multiple births in the womb, or just among siblings. So the social conservatives are right in saying that inside the “natural family”, if it is about the right size, people learn to develop affection and bonds to others in the family or group who may be less capable.
The tendency to look at some people as “better” than others relates to the real concerns about the outside world knocking that practically everyone in my generation dealt with. Less capable people could become a drag on the group if faced with security problems. Among men, the biggest and strongest often stepped up to defend the clan and took the casualties. There was not a lot that could be done about most disabilities, so there wasn’t a lot of talk that helping those with disabilities was an expected thing to do. On the other hand, the expectation of adhering to the personal discipline of confining sexuality to heterosexuality marriage was seen as a personal equalizing force, giving stability and sustainability to a families, tribes and whole countries that faced external perils.
Obviously, today things are a lot different. Many people (myself especially) are not tied to families, and see pleas online to get involved personally with the needs of others in a way that would have been seen as inappropriate or unwelcome in earlier generations. “Gofundme” has become a social norm today, when it strikes an older person like me as grating and self-indulgent.
Practically all communities have organizations that serve the poor. Many are faith-based. They offer services like healthful food preparation and delivery (sometimes owning their own gardens for fresh foods), various monthly community assistance (like groceries, clothing, HIV testing,, as well as meals), to specialized services needed by specific communities (elderly, some LGBTQ, asylum seekers and refugees, single mothers, those with mental health or substance problems). Often the communities ask for lots of volunteers for special events (Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, monthly assistance). Sometimes there are home-building or rehab events (as with group homes for the disabled, or with Habitat for Humanity) The interaction between the volunteers and those being helped will vary, not always being encouraged. Sometimes it seems that the purpose of the activity is more to build social capital among the group (often faith-based).
Volunteering has become more subject to bureaucracy. Now there are usually automated background checks of volunteers, especially for those who will drive vehicles or work with minors.
I do find that occasional volunteering to be problematic. I don’t accomplish much or make much difference when I am there. Further, there are situations where unexpected personal risk is involved, like driving into unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods to make deliveries.
I think it should be more promising to look for more specialized opportunities where one can use one’s own expertise. With my background, for example, I could perhaps direct chess tournaments attracting low income youth. Or I could do something with my classical music background, although that can become problematic if it involved pandering to notions about popularity. If I were involved with music, I’d be more interested in seeing some particular neglected works(not just my own as I composed) performed. As a self-published book author, I do get questions about being more supportive of community book stores (hard copies instead of Internet and Kindle) and of literacy initiatives.
But actual interaction with clients will often be problematic for me. That is something I did not learn through familial socialization the way others have. I didn’t learn to place emotional value on having someone depend on me. In the decades of my own upbringing, you would learn that partly through heterosexual courtship leading to marriage and parenthood within it. Otherwise, my own somewhat “sheltered” upbringing really didn’t require me to interact personally with people with earthier temperaments; some of it was avoided by placing unwelcome interaction in the category of teasing or even bullying, avoidance of somewhat physical competition on other people’s terms. That artificial isolation and introversion continued during my long-track information technology career as an individual contributor, where I basically interacted with just “the choir”, people with cognition similar to mine. This diffidence really showed up when I worked as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s, and, with low-income or disadvantaged students (especially middle school) encountered interpersonal demands that one normally needs to have been a parent to encounter. Or perhaps one would learn it through helping raising younger siblings (I had none) or raising as sibling’s children after a family tragedy, something which sometimes happens in inheritance situations (like “Raising Helen”). It’s notable and ironic that when I was growing up, eldercare was not seen as a challenging issue because our grandparents didn’t live as long as they can now. My own eldercare situation from 1999 on to 2010 had aspects (how old even I was as well as Mother) that would not have happened often in earlier times.
Focused interaction with clients requires commitment to a narrower set of person-related goals than I have experienced until now. I like being the public person who forces others to “connect the dots”. The level of personal commitment needed requires (as the character Ephram on “Everwood” once wrote in a fictitious essay) the “ability to change” and share an outcome for a group. The one time I was the most personally engaged was in the mid 1980s when I volunteered with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas as an AIDS “buddy” (rather assistant), although somewhat on my own terms.
On a couple of occasions, both in the early 1990s, I got feedback from two different organizations that I would not be effective unless I was more involved with the group, including spending more time with it and being more integrated to the group’s specific goals.
(Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 10 PM EDT)