Charity and paradox in the aisles of Kmart

This has not been a holiday season designed to make one’s heart soar over the possibilities of the human spirit.

Too much darkness. Too much darkness.

That’s why I was delighted to read Dan Rubin’s column in a recent Inquirer about the little Christmas miracle this month at, of all places, Kmart.

In these tough times, the discount retailer brought back an old-fashioned concept, buying Christmas gifts on layaway. But even on layaway, some people can’t keep up with payments. Eventually, they lose both the presents and any money they’ve put down.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On Dec. 6 in Grand Rapids, Mi., a woman walked in and paid off the overdue layaway balances of three shoppers, all strangers to her. A random act of Yuletide kindness.

Viruses can be benevolent. This idea spread virally, to Kmarts from here to California. By late week, secret Santas had paid off the balances of more than 1,000 customers, for gifts totaling 420 grand.

Yes, something generous still lingers in the American spirit. Great to see. Let’s savor the thought. ….

….  OK, enough savoring. Now, let me spoil the moment by using it as a springboard to a political observation. (Sorry, it’s what pundits do. )

Why are Americans so often so generous when the act of digging into one’s own treasure to help others in need is framed as charity, yet so reluctant when it’s framed as taxation?

Why? More than three decades of relentless political messaging, that’s why.

I can already recite the notes I will get blasting me as an idiot, a scoundrel and a socialist for even suggesting that it might useful sometimes to reframe the paying taxes as an act of generosity.

Some people are so dug in on the notion that taxes equal oppression and coercion they won’t even consider an alternative view.

When you give to charity, you’re trained to imagine the recipients as sympathetic and worthy. When you pay taxes, you’re urged to regard them as shiftless and shady. But they’re the same people. The Kmart “angels” didn’t run background checks on the people whose balances they were covering; they just did it as an act of generosity.   It’s as likely that some of the people behind on their Kmart payments were irresponsible as it is that someone getting health care through Medicaid might be.

And charities are not notably more effective or honest with your money than governments.

The only reason we feel a warm glow when giving to charity, but white-hot anger when giving to government, is the compartments we’ve been encouraged to set up in our brains.

If we don’t shift the compartments around a little bit, our democracy will continue to languish and our needy continue to suffer needlessly.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal