“They gave me a whole dollar for a tip!” I told my father as I came back to the car. I was amazed. “Remarkable,” he said. “They have nothing, and what they have they give away.”
He was driving me on my evening paper route, which I usually covered on bicycle. It was Christmas Eve, and he was making an exception for me on this special, cold night. It was Saturday, too, the day I collected weekly fees from my customers.
To put that dollar tip in perspective: In 1954 I could buy an ice cream cone for 5 cents at the local ice cream shop in Aspinwall, part of the Pittsburgh metro area. Not everyone gave me a tip on that Christmas Eve, and I did not expect such largesse. Among the tips I did receive, though, the average amount was 10 cents. My route ran halfway down the second highest hill in Allegheny County, then back up and halfway down the other side. On the rich side of the hill, I was given few tips. At the big white house where a maid answered the door, I received none.
Now we were on the poor side of the hill. The O’Neill family lived in a tarpaper shack with tarpaper on the outside and newspaper glued to the walls inside to keep out the drafts. The family were clustered against the cold in one room, around a kerosene heater.
I remember vividly the glow of the kerosene lamp around the mother, who was bedridden. The father had told me he worked in an ice cream factory, but I hardly ever saw him. I had overheard grown-ups muttering about his drinking habit, but I had liked him at first sight. Nana, the grandmother, was retired from keeping house for the priests in Aspinwall, but she did some light work for my mother, ironing clothes in our basement. The boy went to school with us and the girls we had known as baby sitters when we were younger.
I don’t know why the rich family with the maid did not think to give me a tip. It seems that the rich have a harder time than the poor letting money slip away to other people. Did they lack the generous spirit of the poor family? Or were they wiser about the uses of money? I will never know what they thought in the big white house with the maid. I continue to wonder to this day.
The family in the tarpaper shack were simply suffused with the spirit of giving at Christmas time. They were not thinking of their needs or of mine. After all, they were living hand to mouth, while I was being well paid for my efforts as a paper boy (a whole penny for each paper delivered!), and my family was never hungry. I believe that their generosity came out of their own experience of need. They had learned the hard way that we human beings can survive only by helping one another.
I honor the spirit of the poor family, and I will never forget their goodness. But I was the wrong person to be the receiver of their gift. Perhaps they didn’t have the resources to learn where their dollar would have done the most good. There was no internet in those days, and information was hard to get. No one has that excuse now.
We can all find out where people are starving or dying of disease, and we can look closely at the organizations that claim to help them. Data is readily available on the various campaigns against malaria, for example, which is one of the leading killers of children around the world. Wise and effective generosity has never been easier than it is today. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if both families combined the generous spirit of the poor with the wisdom to give money where it was most needed, where it might save lives or give hope?
More of us need to think about that this holiday season. We all need to think about how to steer our generous spirit toward doing the most good.
Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. He writes about ethics and ancient Greek philosophy, and he has recently edited a book about philanthropy on the ethics of giving.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.