Photo by Thomas Castelazo.
At a recent BreakThru radio roundtable of interns, editorial staff, and some in-house DJs, the discussion turned to whether the decision one makes to toss whatever silver overspill they may have jingling inside their pocket into the open guitar case of a street musician. Without anticipating it, I was soon witnessing a rather long-winded debate as to whether this act of philanthropy actually constitutes as “charity.”
To me, the argument rested in the form of the word. Some of the staff saw “charity” as a noun—an organization set up to provide assistance and raise money for those in need. Others, including myself, saw the word as a verb—a voluntary act of giving help, usually in the form of money, to those in need of it. When discussing the former, those who don’t feel passing a musician a few bucks as an example of a charitable donation may have some ground of an argument; but organizations like MUNY (Music Under New York) can be played as a trump card to prove them wrong. As for those who wish to argue against the latter and say that giving money to a musician is not an act of charity based on the fact that the musician is working for it, well, they have a much more difficult point to prove.
Living in New York, one is constantly faced with the daily decision to donate whatever they can to the cup of so many less fortunate people. I challenge anyone to walk the streets of Manhattan with hundreds of dollars in one-dollar bills, and every time they were to pass someone who asked for money, they tossed them a buck. How long would this street philanthropist last? An hour? Half a day? The whole day? Even if they lasted two, a repeated daily exercise would leave the streetwalker $18,250 poorer at the end of their first year—an amount much greater than the average American spends on any given charity in one year. Now, I understand that not all people asking for money on the street are musicians with their instruments, but the point should not be lost by the reader—there is something fundamentally similar in the decision to kick a few bucks to a street musician and writing a check to a local charity.
Or is there?
Besides scale, the decision to donate some of one’s hard earned money to a local foundation or charity carries one significant benefit—tax deductions. Charities are a great thing in our society, and the fact that individuals and corporations benefit from giving money to organizations is further incentive to do just that. In the case of a charity (notice the ‘noun’), there is a kickback, deduct from your income so you don’t have to pay as much in taxes. In the case of acting charitable (‘verb’) on a whim, like deciding to give up some of your money to the musician playing her saxophone under the lamppost, gives you nothing in return except emotional pleasure. Therefore, it could be argued that it is, in fact, more charitable to give where one gets nothing in return than where the decision to donate withholds personal financial (or enterainment?) gain.
So yeah, if you ask me, the person with $100 in his bank account who chooses to toss some cookies into the jar of his local subway musician is more charitable than the fat banker who writes a large check to the Alzheimer Society just to get a tax break. It’s not the amount you give that makes you a person of “charitable nature”; it’s the ration between what you have and what you give, and the motivation behind the act.