A few years ago, on a visit to Mumbai, my kids and I went to a new Barnes-and-Noble like bookstore. Inside the store, one could almost forget that one was in India. The store was air-conditioned – a cool and quiet oasis in the hot, noisy and overcrowded city. All the customers were educated and well-dressed: the elite of Indian society. They would have blended perfectly in a bookstore here in America.
When we stepped out of the store, we were swarmed by 7-8 children, all under ten. Some of the girls were carrying a younger sibling on their hips. They were unkempt, wearing rags, their hair a knotted mess and they were begging.
I dropped a few coins in a few of the outstretched palms. More kids appeared, a little more hopeful, tending towards a wily insistence. After giving out a few more notes and coins, we hurried away. And the kids went off to catch the next customers exiting the store.
Most customers spend of the order of a thousand rupees ($20) on books and in the Starbucks-style coffee shop. And they spare less than a tenth of that for the kids begging outside. Many don't give even that, suffering from empathy fatigue that sets in when it is a daily occurrence, a nuisance to be stepped around.
I was filled with the familiar nag of shame that has been my constant companion since before I ever came to America. Was I really helping by tossing a few rupees in the little outstretched palms? Was I doing it only to assuage my own feelings of guilt and disregard? At what point would I feel that I had given enough? Would that be enough?
Why should I have to feel guilty? Another part of me protested. Why don’t “they” just have fewer kids, I thought angrily. When is the government going to get its act together? Why don’t all these privileged people in the store get together and do something? I fumed silently.
Of course, the truth is that I fled that society, in large part because I felt disillusioned and overwhelmed. I was convinced that things would never change.
And I have been, for the most part, no more than a passive, albeit grateful and appreciative, participant in this, my adopted society’s affirmation of individual dignity. Government programs such as minimum wage, EEOC, OSHA, 40-hour work week, unemployment benefits are, to me, just that.
I often feel lost, ineffective; I have no idea how to go about being an active part of the solution in either of the places I call home.
After a lifetime of trying to square this circle, what I know is this. I want to live in a society that ensures individual dignity by providing everyone with the opportunity to earn a living. And, for those who cannot, one that provides a safety net as a matter of policy rather than as an “entitlement program”, or largesse or noblesse oblige. That is what affirmation of the inherent dignity of each person means to me.
We can give by coming together to create a society where people have the means -- and the imperative -- to provide for themselves. We can give through taxes that knit a safety net for those who cannot.
To me, only that giving makes sense which moves us closer to making the need for continued giving obsolete. All else is duct tape.