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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 January, 2004, 11:51 GMT
Charity begins at home

Justin Webb
BBC Correspondent, Washington

Donald Rumsfeld, it turns out, is all heart.

US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dug deep into his pockets
He has given $100,000 towards a monument for those who died in the attack on the Pentagon in September 2001. The US Government hasn't given anything.

It's the American way, it seems, for individuals to pay where in other countries the state is expected to provide.

There is a school in America I've been told of. It's a private school, with a multicultural air.

Children from many nations attend the school and their flags are proudly displayed outside. All flags, that is...but the British.

There are British children at the school. British parents pick them up and drop them off. But there is no flag.

The reason? According to my informant, it is a little case of cultural clash.

The school, in the grand American tradition, suggests that the parents of each nation, club together to purchase their flag.

The British parents, in the grand British tradition, think they pay plenty as it is and, if the school wants to advertise its multiculturalism, the school should jolly well cough up.

Of course, plenty of British parents do pay for extras in British schools, private and state, at home and abroad, but you and I know that the British tradition is to minimise those payments, not celebrate them.

Generosity

Americans genuinely revel in self-help, and giving to those who can't help themselves.

The revolutionary army which defeated the British was largely funded through private donations rather than special taxes. That tradition is alive and well.

Rap star P Diddy
Rap star P Diddy raised $2m for charity in the New York City marathon in 2003

Even the fire and ambulance service in the Washington suburb where we live is provided on a voluntary basis by local people.

The Bethesda and Chevy Chase Rescue Squad has an annual fund-raising drive and in return for your donation, you get a sticker with their number. If fire breaks out, or if you need an ambulance, you have bought yourself cover. And if you haven't paid your dues and ring them, well they'll probably come anyway, out of charity.

Charity is the obverse of the self-reliance coin. I am not talking of the odd cake donated to a Women's Institute fete or a tenner to Children In Need.

Charity here is woven into the fabric of American life. In 2002, individual Americans gave $180bn away.

At my children's school, the three-year-olds were introduced to the American way just before Christmas. They spent a rather enjoyable day painting shoeboxes.

The parents then went to a bargain warehouse and bought a hundred pairs of children's socks and assorted cheap glittery items to put in the boxes. This was for the Washington poor.

At the same time the school had its own wish list to which parents were invited to contribute. The total was many thousands of dollars.

As a family we were somewhat discomforted by this contrast, between what we gave to ourselves and what we gave to those who were genuinely needy.

But Americans are not worried in the slightest. They are not into changing society, only keeping it going; giving what is surplus and keeping what is necessary for wealth to be maintained.

The American dream

Next week the Democrats, party of the left, will start the process of choosing their candidate for the presidential election. None of the serious contenders will suggest any fundamental shift in the American tradition of self-reliance, self-help, and charity.

A party worker with the Howard Dean campaign, a young man whose private view was that charity was not enough, told me a cautionary tale the other day.

In the heart of every American beats the belief that wealth lies around the corner

In the progressive state of Washington, a car tax was introduced whereby you paid more if your car was more expensive.

This socialistic experiment was highly controversial and was put to a state-wide vote. It was struck down.

Apparently a victory for the rich. But when the exit poll data was examined, it was discovered that this was in fact a victory for the poor.

Wealthier people had voted in large numbers to keep the tax. Unusually for Americans, they thought it was fair that they should pay more. But poorer people had voted to get rid of it.

Why? Because in the heart of every American beats the belief that wealth lies around the corner, with a new job or a change of luck.

They too would be able to own a more expensive car and they didn't want to pay the extra taxes when they got it.

Americans do not approve of safety nets. They fly high and fall hard. That is the nature of the place.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 January, 2004, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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