It’s the bottom 1% that really deserves our attention

An awful lot is being said these days about the difference between the top 1% and the rest of us. But if we really care about social justice, we should probably focus more of our attention on the difference between those of us fortunate enough to be in the top 99%, and the 1% at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

Consider the homeless, a significant group of individuals and families without even the resources to meet what most of us consider the absolute basics of human existence. About 30,000 Canadians are homeless at any given time, and upwards of 600,000 Americans.

In terms of social justice, helping the homeless could pretty easily be thought of as low-hanging fruit. Debates rage over whether (or why, precisely, it should be thought unfair for CEO incomes to keep rising while the middle class stagnates. At least one move in that debate goes like this: capitalism helps everyone (though not equally) and so those who benefit from the system (i.e., just about everyone) have little legitimate grounds for complaint, and certainly little grounds to wish for a different system. To the extent that that point holds, it implies then that we should focus our energies on the needs of the very worst off — those who are truly left behind by the capitalist system. Professors and journalists and unionized blue-collar workers have comparatively little grounds for complaint. So if we want to make the world a fairer place, let’s focus on those who need it most.

And besides, given what economists refer to as the diminishing marginal utility of money, a dollar given to a poor person does a lot more good than a dollar given to a middle-class person.

Assisting the homeless, in other words, is where the ethical action is, whether you are concerned about good outcomes or about the distribution of those outcomes — that is, justice.

In Canada, governments at the provincial and municipal level have taken up the cause, with varying degrees of zeal and varying degrees of success. But business can play a role too, and any company that considers itself ‘socially responsible’ should consider helping the homeless as a key pillar of that stance.

Donating money to charities that help the homeless is one obvious avenue. But there are also businesses — for-profit businesses — that have made helping the homeless part of their business. One company, for example, has devised a backpack that converts into a tent.

Other companies have found ways to make it easier for other people to help the homeless. Handup, for example, is a text-messaging service that makes it easier to donate money to a given homeless person, while at the same time raising the odds that the donation will go to real essentials. Or consider Suspended Coffees, a way for coffee buyers to donate coffee to those who need one: at participating coffee shops, customers can simply order an additional, “suspended,” coffee, which the barista will note and give to the next needy person who comes in to ask for one.

Companies also have an opportunity to help simply by letting the homeless do things like use the bathroom. Or by giving away food that is unsold, at the end of the day. (Got other suggestions? Post them in the Comments section below!)

What counts as justice, and whether capitalism ought to be thought of as fair in the most important senses of that word, are philosophically complex questions. But given how much each of us — and each business — could do for the homeless without even breaking a sweat, it is clear that that’s where some of our clearest obligations lie. That goes for most of us as individuals, just as well as it does for companies that aspire to earn the label, “socially responsible.”

3 comments so far

  1. Marvin Edwards on

    Relying on private charity is like trying to solve the homeless problem by handing out lottery tickets. The solution will be both random and uneven. Many may receive some assistance but many more will fall through the cracks. It feel satisfying to give the guy five dollars, but nothing is ever resolved.

    What is needed is a well-managed and coordinated system of public assistance, where a variety of solutions, appropriate for different person’s different combinations of problems can be addressed effectively and efficiently.

    These public agencies need active outreach into the communities with the largest problems and a public informed as to where to refer the guy asking for a handout so that he can get a hand up, by people who know what they’re doing.

    The person needing assistance may need job training, temporary housing, or treatment for medical or mental health issues.

    What is the ethical basis for a private company to involve itself in charity work? Their business motives seem rather obvious, public relations. The specific good provided by a private business are the goods and services they provide to the community. That is their sufficient noble purpose.

    One other reason for a private business to involve itself in charitable acts is to reduce the demand for taxes to pay for public programs. And that’s not noble either.

    Homelessness is a practical problem which needs a coordinated public service approach. Anything short of that is ducking the real problem and looking for short-term self-satisfaction.

    • Curt Day on

      That was an excellent analogy. Thank you.

  2. Nyla on

    I think one way businesses can help out is by offering opportunities for skills development or even hiring those that are job-ready. For example, the Toronto youth shelter Covenant House has a fantastic “Cooking for Life” program for homeless youth trying to get their lives together. It leads to a food handler’s certificate. Unfortunately, they often have a very difficult time placing the youth that complete the courses into jobs afterwards. Cafes and restaurants can start by being more open to hiring these youth.

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