DEAR AMY: As we enter another season of giving, I realize a familiar frustration in my heart.
My family is what I would consider the definition of American middle class: We own our own home, have two cars, two incomes and two children. We've never needed to ask for assistance of any kind. I realize we have a great deal to be thankful for, but we also work extremely hard.
My problem is this: In the past, I've always had a soft heart when it came to charitable giving. If I saw someone in need and had the ability to give time, energy or financial assistance, I would always do so without question. Over the years, however, I've grown to be a "hesitant giver" of anything.
The same individuals stand on street corners every day in our city panhandling with cardboard signs explaining their plight. I don't believe they are stranded and need money for gas, that they are disabled vets or have hungry children or a terminally ill wife at home.
I know individuals who have abused the efforts of charities, churches and the welfare system, taking food, aid, Christmas gifts and rent subsidies they don't need or deserve.
I see families having far more children than they can afford, and while I know it's a free country and people should be able to raise the family they want, it is not a free world when it comes to paying for these children.
My children will not receive any federal or state assistance to attend college, while our neighbors, pregnant with their 10th child, will have a plethora of grants and financial aid available to them. They are, in my view, being rewarded for not having any foresight.
How (and where?) do I give when too often I believe people simply live the consequences of their poor choices?
I want to have a kind heart toward people in need, but it's been hardened over the years. How might I soften up? -- Middle-class Maggie
DEAR MAGGIE: Speaking as someone who was the beneficiary of subsidized programs, heating assistance, educational grants and other "charity" as a young person, I take exception to your reasoning and conclusion, though I understand your frustration.
You've been hard-working and fortunate, but even if you choose to think that poverty is a result of poor life choices, I venture that needy people shouldn't have to prove to you that they are deserving.
Giving to panhandlers or scam artists is probably a very poor investment. But giving to a food bank or to the Salvation Army is not. Families displaced by natural disasters, illness and plain bad luck can see their lives turned around by the right kind of support.
I agree with you that hard-working middle-class people seem penalized when it's time to hand out money for college educations, but for every needs-based grant dollar, there is another merit-based scholarship dollar available for a deserving student.
The idea behind charitable giving is to celebrate your own blessings by trying to lift up the life of someone else. I maintain that you can and should choose to believe in people's potential. When you do, you'll see your heart "soften."
One of my favorite Internet sites is www.charitynavigator.org. You can research areas of your own interest and find a charity or foundation that does work in that area.