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WTC Victims Don't Need More Charity

Somebody's got to say it, because a lot of people are thinking it but few are willing to appear heartless or uncompassionate or crass by putting it in words. So call me cruel, but here goes:

The amount of money pouring in to the survivors and families of the victims of last month's World Trade Center attack is obscene. They don't need any more.

It's obscene because while this outpouring of generosity and compassion appears to know no limits, many of the people directly affected by the events of September 11 are getting no help at all. And doubly obscene because while this has happened, donations that would be put to immediate use for the needy and desperate around the country -- food banks, shelters, kids' programs -- have slowed to a trickle as donors focus on New York.

While a number of politicians and commentators have properly been awestruck by our country's compassion, and the level of generosity that is possible when the wealth of this country is focused on a crisis, that generosity hasn't been spread evenly. This was apparent even in the first 24 to 48 hours, as food poured in from around the country, far more food than the citizens of Manhattan could eat. Or, as it turned out, distribute: a friend of mine who helps run a food bank in Brooklyn tells of having nothing to serve her clients, while only a few miles away, literal mountains of donated food were wasting away in lower Manhattan.

Similarly, the money that has come in has been unevenly distributed. Families of dead firefighters and police officers have been compensated for their tragedy to a stunning level; each are now millionaires several times over, recipients of generosity from the federal government, state and local governments, private donors, and, of course, whatever existing insurance policies also kicked in. Not to minimize either the tragedy or these peoples' heroism, but after all, they were only doing their jobs; it was only the circumstances that were remarkable. Meanwhile, small business owners in lower Manhattan, even those whose businesses were ruined, haven't been nearly so lucky. Even less noticed have been the residents of the area, who in some cases are now homeless in the worst housing market in the country.

And that's just among the victims. The bigger issue, in New York and around the country, is that those services and people already dependent on peoples' generosity before September 11 have, with winter coming on, been left out in the cold. I know a number of nonprofits here in Seattle and around the country who are saying that in the last six weeks, their normal level of donations has fallen off by half or more. They are struggling to retain staff and keep their services going. And the cruelest irony is that the economic blow delivered by September 11's attacks, placed on top of an already struggling economy, has caused and will continue to cause the demand for those services to rise. And the economic decisions being made by Congress further ensure that after the coming budget cuts, there won't be much help coming from what's left of the government's safety net. These are the folks we'll be relying upon.

Yet, it's still impossible to listen to the radio or watch TV or go shopping without being inundated with additional fundraising drives for "the victims."

Such campaigns now have a momentum of their own, and show little sign of receding. Part of this is well-intentioned unity and solidarity, but part is a PR exercise, wherein corporations want to look good by showing that they're doing their part. Visibly and noisily, instead of the usual, lower-profile giving campaigns most companies have.

Enough already. This country is capable of feeding and housing the world, given the enormous wealth we have compared to everybody else, and we're proving it at the moment through the amount of money going to New York. But that generosity is not only passing over some of the people who were hurt, but creating another crisis for those in our country who are already victimized by the economy or our health care system or their boyfriends or stepfathers or whatever. By all means, let's keep the spirit of generosity and philanthropy going in this country. But the families of those who died on September 11 don't need any more money. A lot of other people do. Let's start helping them instead.

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