If I were to ask you what you think about charity, you’d probably respond with something positive. Charity work aids important sectors of society including health care, education and the economy. It stimulates communities, promotes human development and remains within the private sector, where it can be “purely” devoted to the cause.

And you’d probably rejoice in learning that donations to charity organizations from individuals increased by 7.1 percent from 2013 to 2014. You’ll maybe even fist-pump the sky when you hear that charities received more than $358 billion during the same year — the fifth consecutive year giving to charity organizations has increased in America.

With this framework, it appears that the generous American public has found its panacea for human suffering. As charities grow, it won’t be long before stories of homelessness, truancy and inequality wither; the economy will continue to expand and people will give more until no one else is in need. Issues like poverty will eventually appear antiquated and somewhat abstract, something we only read about in textbooks and share with our kids when telling stories of the days when we were young.

But unfortunately, for all the difference charities make in the social, economic and communal development of our nation, they don’t seem to alleviate life for the poor: In 2014, poverty remained unchanged, affecting 14.9 percent, or 47 million Americans.

For all the energy charities devote to revitalizing communities, I wonder: Why does charity exist at all? And, for that matter, why is it the responsibility of charities to solve our nation’s ills, and further, why should these problems even exist in the first place?

Charity’s operative goals, it seems, are reactive. That is, its function is a response to current or future misery experienced by many citizens. Billions of dollars are poured into these organizations to combat future trends of poverty, violence, drug addiction, hunger and illiteracy, or to gain access to health care benefits. They are rehabilitative efforts to our system. But if that’s all they are — inherently reactive measures — why not just change the system itself?

In order to do this, we should be investing in proactive public institutions as to prevent people from (what we hope are) non-normative behaviors: drug abuse, underground economic activity and violent crime — things that cause them to be rejected by society. We should be bringing people into mainstream institutions — providing pathways to health care, education, jobs and social inclusion — thereby closing gaping holes in America’s system.

Excuse my Marxism, but episodes of human suffering persist because poverty is systemic: It’s based on how we redistribute wealth (or don’t). Thankfully, our economy is expansive: We manufacture enough products and create enough services to ensure that no one has to be homeless or go hungry. With an economy GDP of about $17 trillion, we can trim our incredibly high poverty rate, which is 15 percent. To put this in perspective, China’s economy is worth approximately $10 trillion, but they maintain a 13-percent poverty rate, even though they care for about 1 billion more people. Like putting a bandage on a gunshot wound, charity is not a comprehensive approach and therefore cannot resolve the issues it may seek to.

A more comprehensive alternative is some form of redistributed wealth. This means viewing our world as interconnected, not individualistic — something the American public has a hard time accepting, its ideal self being the archetypical John Wayne character, riding across the prairie on horseback, fulfilling his manifest destiny.

Maybe government has a responsibility aside from just landing on the moon, fighting wars halfway across the world and allowing people to roam the wild wild west. The role of our government includes uniting society — integrating those of different classes, races, creeds and backgrounds — to improve the economy, health and general well-being of citizens. This philosophy means our government and the electorate are responsible for each other’s successes and failures.

To be sure, our country can have its cake and eat it, too, promoting economic liberalization — privatizing and (at times) deregulating — while upholding human dignity by reallocating some of that capital to others as an opportunity for many to enter mainstream society. Other nations with much less wealth certainly do this. This has been the policy of countries from Norway and Canada to Singapore. They invest in their citizens because they know the results are advantageous. It’s no wonder they’re more often included in “best countries to live in” lists.

For those capitalist-minded, Milton Friedman-types, one possible solution can come in the form of a guaranteed basic income. In this scenario, certain subsidies can be cut, or wealthy banks and oil companies can be taxed more heavily in order to provide a basic income for low-socioeconomic-status families. If more people have a basic income, they may be able to spend more, which stimulates the economy.

Who knows? Maybe our country is moving in this direction. One Vermont democratic socialist senator has gained much popularity because of his government-interventionist beliefs. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders wants to expand health care coverage, make higher-level education affordable and provide family paid leave — all to invest in human capital and contract inequality.

He’s adopting a new American mentality. A mentality that holds the state accountable so that more of its citizens — no matter their creed, sex, race, socioeconomic status or ethnicity — have the opportunity to live with dignity and maintain a reasonable standard of living in the 21st century. By adopting this thinking, Sanders knows he must first reform the “rigged” financial system.

Until more Americans follow his leading mantra, charity is the best thing we have in a broken, unbalanced system.  

Sam Corey can be reached at samcorey@umich.edu. 

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