Charity Chicken: Anti-Dignity and Ways to Counteract It

Happy Independence Day, America! I’ve chosen to write about a topic that goes hand in hand with independence: Dignity.

My mother was a single mom in an era when that was not only less acceptable, but also not as workable. Daycare wasn’t as widely available, and women were often relegated to the most menial low-paying jobs. No one talked about a glass ceiling because women didn’t even consider looking up, let alone moving up. Divorce was scandalous. You were expected to bite your tongue, take your abuse, stay home and raise the children. How were you supposed to survive when society and culture and economics were all stacked against you?

Much to our general humiliation, there were times when we had to resort to accepting a box of food from the local church. Thanksgiving was one of those times. We got a chicken breast, some cranberries, and some beans. Nothing to make these items palatable. No bread, no butter, no spices, no sugar. Nothing. My oldest sister used to bitterly call this “charity chicken”. We were grateful to have food, of course, but it wasn’t a very festive holiday meal for a family of four. In retrospect, this food probably did more to assuage the guilt of the more affluent members of the community than it did to allow us some dignity in our struggle to survive.

Dignity is a valuable commodity when you’re poor, because there are so many mechanisms in place to try and take that from you. I get so irritated when people say that all poor people are lazy and that they want handouts and feel a sense of entitlement. Entitled to what, exactly? Humiliation, hopelessness, hunger and despair? While that may be the case for a pathetic few, the vast majority of us who are struggling would do anything to have it otherwise. In fact, it has been my experience that most poor people work harder than the rest of society. They just get fewer returns for a variety of reasons. Who works harder? A CEO of a fortune 500 company, or someone who is digging ditches in the hot sun?

If you don’t have your health or educational opportunities or a stable family unit, you often wind up at the bottom of the societal heap. Someone always has to be at the bottom, or the people at the top have nothing on which to stand.

I’d like to think that most of us make efforts to help those in need. I read somewhere that poor people tend to donate a larger percentage of their income to charity than rich people do. That says quite a bit. And there are so many worthy causes out there that there is ample opportunity to be generous.

I would like to make a personal appeal to all of you. When you do choose a charity, please choose one that allows people to maintain their dignity. Most people do not want you to throw your money or food at them and then walk away. They want to be able to lift themselves up. Sometimes they just need a helping hand to start them on their way. Donate to programs that give people job skills. Donate to groups that help restore people’s health so they can become active participants in their communities. Donate to organizations that allow people to become self-sufficient.

Here are my two favorite charities:

  • Heifer International. I often suspect that this organization would be much more popular and well known if it didn’t have such a goofy name, but the amazing work they do makes up for that faux pas. It takes your donations and buys livestock with it. Cows, ducks, goats, llamas, honey bees, you name it. These animals can provide lifesaving income and sources of food for families throughout the world. But here’s what makes this group even more amazing to me: they don’t just hand someone a cow and then walk away. They train them in the best ways to keep this cow healthy. They teach them to run a business selling the milk. And best of all, they require that they breed the animal and provide a calf or two to other families in need, so the cycle continues. Those who are helped obtain skills that will sustain them for a lifetime, and then they, too, become helpers. There is nothing more dignified than that. One donation to Heifer International can cause a positive ripple effect that will go on for years.


  • Technically this isn’t even a charity, so if you’re simply looking for a tax write off, you may want to steer clear of this one. Kiva is actually a micro loan organization, so any money you put into it you will get back. Their default rate is so incredibly low that I’ve never lost a penny in the 7 years that I have participated. In that time I’ve made 41 loans to people in 31 countries. Here’s an example of how it works. Maria in Ecuador is a single mother who has a tiny little shop that she runs out of her home. In it she sells children’s clothing. She has noticed that the farmers in her area don’t have a convenient source for heavy duty pants to wear while working in the field. She wants to expand her inventory to include these items, but she needs a loan. You make a loan to Maria, in increments of 25 dollars. Perhaps you and 23 other people around the world contribute to it. Maria then pays you back, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve expanded her business, increased her income and improved the lives of everyone in her family. That’s a great feeling, so if you’re like me, you’ll take that same 25 dollars that you loaned to Maria and you’ll loan it to yet another person. Loaning that same money over and over and over again throughout the years, I’ve actually given $1,150.00 in loans and yet have only tied up $25.00 in actual money, which I can get back if I ever need to. What seems like a tiny amount of money can make a huge difference in the life of someone who lives on a dollar a day.


The beauty of participating in both these programs is that you get to feel all warm and fuzzy and the people you help get to keep their dignity and lift themselves up. How can you beat that?

14 thoughts on “Charity Chicken: Anti-Dignity and Ways to Counteract It

  1. Carole Lewis

    Two of my favorite groups. My Son in leiu of Christmas gifts give a donation to the Wounded Warriors Foundation. One year I did this for Heifer International. My life also was similar to your family. Always working, always poor. One Christmas the three children and I (we had nothing but time) helped build a float for the Christmas Parade (Apopka) and at the end, the parade committee presented the small decorated tree to us, even after 40 years I still have a couple of the ornaments. It was the greatest Christmas Present ever

  2. My wife’s church does the Heifer project thing. I love that. Dignity is not always hard to find. If you have it, you can hang on to it in hard times. But it doesn’t help that the rich look upon everyone going through hard times as takers. Good post.

  3. Sam

    My mother became a single mom (raising five children alone) after my parents divorced in 1977. It was one of the most difficult periods of my young life….but ironically, one of the most rewarding. My mother left college at the age of 20 to marry my dad and was a homemaker for 20 years. With no work experience outside of the home, it was very difficult for her to get a good-paying job in order to supplement the modest alimony/child support check she received. She finally decided to bring home a paycheck using her life’s experience. She placed a “want ad” saying she would babysit and do some light housekeeping. By the time I was in college, she was babysitting and housekeeping for several families in the area. In time, she developed an excellent reputation and sometimes had more job offers than she could fit into her schedule. I was so proud of her. When I grew older, I realized what a valuable lesson that difficult time had taught me. I learned to have a strong work ethic, to be proud of an honest day’s work (no matter how tiring, grubby, or difficult it was), to respect the value of a dollar, to cherish the love and company of my family. I recently told a co-worker that ordering a pizza (when I was a kid) was a great treat and rare luxury. I have learned to appreciate many things that people take for granted. My mom had a funny saying: “We may be poor, but we have class.” So, in her way she was teaching us to have dignity, no matter the circumstances. I am now a high school teacher and tell my students to prepare themselves to work hard in a very competitive world. Some of the scariest things that I have experienced as an adult (and struggling actor) were not having money for food and being short on the rent. One thing that concerns me is that many young people don’t seem very concerned about others that are poor or struggling. If they only understood that this could happen to anyone. I think experiencing that difficult time after my parents divorce taught me the importance of maintaining personal dignity and to respect the dignity of others.

    1. I think our mothers would have gotten along really well. It sounds like they were both hard working women with integrity and dignity. My mother worked hard to make sure we didn’t have what she called a “welfare mentality”, in other words, she always wanted to make sure that we understood that even though we are poor, that didn’t mean we didn’t deserve the best in life, and were just as intelligent and capable as the next person. Your students are lucky to have you to instill these values within them as well. I hope you’ll tell them about Heifer International and Kiva, and how a tiny little effort on their part can change the life of someone in the third world. Thanks for sharing, Sam!

  4. Pingback: The Best Part of Philanthropy – The View from a Drawbridge

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