Within living memory there were many men and woman who kept secret the ‘shameful’ fact of growing up in an orphanage or similar homes for children who could not, for various reasons, be cared for by parents or extended family. Whatever the reason for their exclusion from society, the inevitable implication was that they were unwanted, by family and community.
Logic would suggest that responsibility for such circumstances would lie with adults. Perhaps so but that is not the way these excluded boys and girls saw the world, even when they became men and women. It was equally shameful to acknowledge that a dead relative had, because of poverty, been consigned to a pauper grave.
The great depression was shameful for a lot of men who failed to find a job even when it was common knowledge there were no jobs to be found. To ward off starvation it was necessary to accept a handout from the state or private charity.And so it carries on to this day with the dole and other allowances provided by the collective of tax-paying citizens.
While there has probably always been a few who feel entitled rather than grateful, most people feel extremely uncomfortable to find themselves on a benefit.
Perhaps it’s an ancient cultural norm; society accepts that individuals need the support of the state from time to time but the price of acceptance is loss of pride and social of status. These unwritten values prevail today. And yet there has been a curious shift.
Today, it seems, charity is okay. There is no need for negative emotions, but only if you are not in need: Primary school children collecting outside a supermarket for a trip to Auckland to take part in this or that activity, presumably because it would be cool to do so.
Secondary students collecting for the opportunity to be part of a rugby team to compete in Australia, because, well, we want to and it would be so neat. Teachers and parents apparently encourage this kind of begging.
It seems it’s okay now for anyone to sit in a public place with a sign and collection tin for just about anything, so long as they are reasonably clean, polite, well dressed and not hungry.
Not that all collections for charity are as trivial as those outlined above.
A child with a life threatening disease for instance, may need time at Starship Hospital and a parent on hand. An expensive undertaking for most parents. Yet also the kind of charity that most people would want to give to.
But while the parent beneficiary of such charity would feel grateful and possibly obliged to find a way to reciprocate, in some way, shame would not be one of the feelings involved, not if, as is usually the case, it is not the parent but a friend who is doing the asking.
But this too can get out of hand. Professional charity organisations, apparently asking on behalf of those in need, are no longer satisfied with the widow’s mite, they have boxes for donors to tick – starting at… $30.
In our low wage economy the most altruistic and compassionate may want to give but just cannot jump this financial hurdle.