On March 25, the Senate approved a $2 trillion economic stimulus package. It includes a provision of at least $1,200 for most Americans. The goal is to help counter the economic effects of COVID-19 — and present economic difficulties are no small matter. Last Thursday, April 16, unemployment claims had reached 22 million, and it is currently estimated that another 4.3 million have filed for unemployment since then. As scary as the pandemic is, there is an economic cost to social distancing in the form of shuttered businesses. Literally tens of millions of Americans are being forced to decide whether personal health or economic wellbeing carries the greater opportunity cost.
Socio-economic disparities will likely map differences in how each person uses their $1,200. If you don’t need your stimulus check to make ends meet, there is but one ethical choice: to give it freely.
Christians often speak of stewardship, but the present moment is an opportunity to remember that stewardship strives after an expansive vision of the good. Simply stated, stewardship exists for others — all others. Because the current economic crisis is such an exceptional situation, the altruistic possibilities of stewardship are all the more important. If all other things were equal, it would be perfectly ethical to direct unexpected, extra income to a variety of personal ends, such as one’s retirement account or mortgage. However, with unemployment so high, stimulus funds need to go where they will do the most good. And, they need to get there as quickly as possible.
The following considerations are informed by the concept of effective altruism, which involves using your head to make altruistic decisions. Bleeding hearts don’t really solve problems — they just make a mess. However, if we dispassionately analyze the economic needs around us, we are more likely to make good choices (and not just choices that make us feel good!). Below I offer, in alphabetical order, four suggestions for where to give.
Charities: There are two kinds of charities: those that need money and those that don’t. Furthermore, many charities watch their budgets grow at the end of the year, as money comes in during the holidays, but shrink during other seasons — and this all the more in a time of economic difficulty. If a charity consistently needs money, then your gift, even if small, may be a genuine lifeline for their mission. So, go find a charity that needs money and give them some.
Church: Yes, churches are charities, and they too rely upon donations that wax and wane throughout the year. But churches differ from other charities in some important ways. Not only are churches both religious and social institutions, they are also — at least, ideally — multi-generational institutions. For example, my parish was established in 1832, but I do not know of any local charities that go back so far. Giving to your church is therefore an investment in the future. If your church is a serious institution, then that investment will not just help sustain a local expression of the faith, but will also aid the charitable work that your church does and will do in the future. It is probably impossible to overestimate the immense amount of charitable giving done in and through churches. So, direct some of your stimulus money to your parish, too.
Local Businesses: I emphasize local businesses, in part, because they are more likely to be small businesses. As with effective altruism informing which charities we give to, effective altruism also directs us to help businesses that are more likely to be cash-strapped. Patronizing local businesses will be more difficult if they have temporarily shut down. However, some businesses are fulfilling orders placed over the phone or through email; others, such as restaurants, remain open for take-out; still others, in more dire straits, have set up GoFundMe pages. If none of these apply, then patronize local businesses generously when they reopen.
Tip Generously: As with local businesses, tipping may also prove difficult at present. But there will soon come a point when it is no longer difficult, and you are able to give both freely and directly. Do so. Tip at an exorbitant rate of 50%, 100%, or more. You might also be able to tip the business directly, which will be most welcome.
American citizens have begun receiving their economic stimulus money. We must use it, as intended, for the wellbeing of others.
Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.