In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton made the case that many United States citizens are as destitute as the world’s poorest people, and for that reason, helping them is as important, if not more so, than aiding the global poor. Some economists and a political scientist challenged Deaton’s analysis, saying that US poverty is far less extreme as compared to poverty in many low-income countries. Philosopher Peter Singer, well known for being a champion of “effective altruism,” made the point that money buys far less in the United States than it does in poorer countries, and therefore we should donate to global charities, such as those recommended by The Life You Can Save (which Singer himself founded) and GiveWell.

Six years ago, when I worked as a researcher for GiveWell, I would have undoubtedly agreed with Singer. That same year, my father made the case that Americans should donate in their own communities and get involved in local issues, rather than focusing only on global poverty alleviation. He’d barely finished speaking when I gave him an incredulous look. “Don’t you know that a donation to a charity in a poor country can save a life?” I told him. I found it unfathomable that anyone would consider giving in the United States, given how much further donations can go in low-income countries.

Yet in 2017, my husband and I donated to the Bronx Freedom Fund, a New York City-based nonprofit devoted to paying bail for people accused of misdemeanors. What changed? 

This past year, I started volunteering as a debate teacher at Rikers Island, a jail complex on an island adjacent to LaGuardia Airport, with Manhattan’s glittering skyline as backdrop. What I learned at Rikers blew my mind. Of the 9,000 people behind bars at any given time, nearly 80 percent of them have not been convicted of a crime. Most of them are there because they are poor, often for lack of what amounts to a few hundred dollars in bail. Almost all plead guilty just to get out of jail—Rikers is notorious for being very dangerous—whether or not they’ve committed a crime. A few years ago, a 16-year-old named Kalief Browder refused to plead guilty for stealing a backpack, and was held for three years, much of it in solitary confinement. In the end, the city dropped the charges for lack of evidence and sent him home, but it was too late for Browder, who suffered from mental health issues resulting from his ordeal and committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers.

An aerial view of Rikers Island in New York.

In many places across the United States, we have a similarly harsh and two-tiered system. Nearly half a million people are sitting in jails on any given day though they haven’t been convicted (about 20 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States). And every day they spend in pretrial detention, things get worse for them, as they lose jobs, housing, sometimes even their kids. And if they plead guilty, they’re stuck with a criminal record that often further mires them in poverty. 

After I started volunteering at Rikers, I heard stories from our students about how they could get out if only they had $500 to pay a bail bondsman. It started to seem absurd. And then I learned it’s sometimes just one dollar keeping them behind bars. Because of an administrative “quirk” in New York, people have sometimes been stuck for days or weeks in jail on one-dollar bail. Last year, a man was trapped at Rikers on one dollar bail for five months. 

It’s a horrible situation. The issue at stake is not just the level of poverty in the United States, but also our wretched system that criminalizes poverty. The good news is there’s a movement to reform bail and reduce pretrial detention underway in many cities and states, thanks to communities and advocacy groups—including the ACLU, Civil Rights Corps, Color of Change, JustLeadershipUSA, and the Southern Poverty Law Center—pushing for change.

And in the shorter term, nonprofit bail funds such as the Bronx Freedom Fund and Brooklyn Bail Fund cover bail to get New Yorkers out of jail. Nonprofit bail funds are springing up in cities across the United States, some of them supported by organizations like the National Bail Fund Network and the Bail Project. There’s solid evidence that paying bail for people leads to much better outcomes for them. Researchers have found that being held in pretrial detention significantly increases the chance of pleading guilty (whether or not the person committed a crime). And there’s plenty of research showing that a criminal record can severely limit job and housing opportunities

Though my views have changed in some ways, I still think that it’s crucial to examine the evidence when deciding where to give. The criteria that GiveWell uses to evaluate charities—evidence of effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, transparency, and room for more funding—are useful in thinking through the options. And while none of GiveWell’s top charities work in the United States, Open Philanthropy Project (which was incubated at GiveWell and split off in 2017) has given extensive grants within criminal justice reform and makes suggestions to individual donors for where to give. 

To be clear, I still agree with Singer’s point that money often goes further outside of the United States, especially with regard to meeting basic needs like shelter and medical care. I still give each month to GiveDirectly, a GiveWell-recommended charity that gives cash to families in Kenya and other countries, and believe that donors in wealthy countries should not look away from global poverty. But we also have opportunities to reduce huge amounts of suffering right down the street, at a relatively low cost. Beyond that, we have a clear opportunity to push back on long-standing injustice and inequity in how people are treated in our criminal justice system. Back in 1964, then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy testified, “The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail.” Supporting those who are fighting for a better system in the United States is a worthy cause.

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