The Alms Expert Opening

Around 1800 in England and Russia, the three main do-gooder activities were medicine, school, and alms (= food/shelter for the weak, such as the old or crippled). Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. …

Foragers who personally taught kids, cared for sick folks, and gave food/shelter to weak folks, credibly signaled their loyalty to allies, at least when such needy were allies. Weak group selection helped encourage such aid as ways to signal loyalty. … [Today,] votes supporting spending taxes on medicine, school and alms are interpreted as showing loyal “caring” for one’s community. (more)

Today, two of these three classic charities have very powerful associated “professions”: doctors and teachers. These professions are powerful because they are seen as representing the good in those causes – doctors are our official authorities on what is good for patients, and teachers are our official authorities on what is good for students. So we tend to back these experts when they fight with other related organizations, such as when docs fight with insurance companies, or when teachers fight with mayors. This allows such experts to be very well paid and pampered relative to other professionals.

The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc. While there are of course people who specialize in such roles, they are not united together under a single recognized label to leverage public sympathy, and they do not speak as a unit, or negotiate as a unit with related organizations.

But, given the example of docs and teachers, it seems plausible that if alms experts were to create an encompassing profession of “feeders”, and if they as a unit publicly challenged other related organizations, like charities or government funders, this feeding profession could often get their way. Of course they’d probably mostly use their power to benefit themselves. To guess if they would help the world, ask yourself if organized docs and teachers help the world.

Even so, there does seem to be an as yet largely unused opening for a feeding profession.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Teachers in the US are well payed? How do you think the task should be payed in a perfect world?
    People support the quest of doctors because they might become sick. The support teachers because they are interested in the education of their children.

    When it comes to supporting food and shelter for the needy, a lot of people don’t see their own self interest. 

    • Anonymous

      It’s the protestant work ethic. I can save money/investments, so anyone who is poor muuuuuust be lazy.

    • Doug

      The typical teacher works about 1250 hours a year (180 days of school times 7 hours of class/prep a day). Median teacher salary is about of $50,000 a year.

      In addition the vast majority of public school teachers receive defined benefit retirement plans after only 30 years of work. If a teacher starts at 25 they can retire at 55 and receive a significant portion of their salary as pension for the rest of their life. They also receive free healthcare both when they work and after they retire.

      Life expectancy is about 85, interest rates are near zero and healthcare costs are growing much faster than GDP, so you can see that NPV of these retirement plans are huge. Needless to say virtually 100% of private sector workers have MUCH less generous benefit packages.

      When you add up the value of healthcare, pensions and other benefits the median value of non-salary compensation can easily exceed $20,000 a year in many districts.

      Median teachers earn a wage of $56/hour. Far more than the median college educated wage of $30/hour. This is despite the fact that education majors consistently rank at or near the bottom of standardized test scores.

      • Far more than the median college educated wage of $30/hour. This is despite the fact that education majors consistently rank at or near the bottom of standardized test scores.

        Why do you suppose education attracts only the bottom if the pay is so great? (It points to compensation going to teachers being the result of the undesirability of the work itself–very stressful, apparently.)

      • Teacher compensation is very back-loaded. You don’t make as much when you start out, but you get higher pay for seniority & credentials (neither of which have been found to actually help kids learn). If the system was reformed to continually get rid of the bottom performing teachers while bringing in new ones at a higher starting pay, there would be higher quality teachers.

      • AspiringRationalist

        That is a gross underestimate of how much time teachers actually spend working.  Teachers have to spend a significant amount of time outside of school on grading.  While this is not a rigorous survey, the total working hours I have generally heard from teachers I know is 50 hours / week (10 hours / day) when school is in session, for a total of 180 * 10 = 1800 hours per year.  Add in-service days (days when teachers come to school for meetings, etc. but students don’t come in) and a couple weeks of meetings and preparation at the start of the year, and the total is probably ~1900.
        According to BLS statistics, the average teacher earns $55.7k / yr (the data is at; I took a weighted average of all non-special ed kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school teachers), for an average of $29.31, very close to the college-educated median that you cite.

  • Robert Koslover

    There’s a huge difference between voluntary and involuntary charity.  The latter process, which occurs variously in the form of taxation, debasing the currency, and our myriad of federal and state social/welfare programs, has a vast army of “professionals” who work in those fields and force their will upon us all under penalty of law.  And in my view, we don’t need any more of them, thank you.  Now, in regard to finding voluntary-charity professionals, there of course exist a large number of charitable organizations.  E.g., according to, “there are currently over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States.”  I suspect you’ll find many “alms experts” there, if you look for them. 

    • Robert Koslover

       I should have added that the “alms experts” among non-profits are organized in terms of their organizations, some of which are already huge: e.g., the Red Cross, the United Way, etc.  How/why would further organization or the issuance of professional titles help?

  • adrianratnapala

    Hmm, the profession exists and is politically powerful, but the pay is middling.  I mean the welfare lobby, including it’s various charities, think-tanks and whatever. And notice that while it is politically powerful, it’s power is not overwhelming.  Welfare reform, and kicking people off the dole can be a vote winner.

    If RH is right that people have an inherent emotional reaction in favour of “feeders”, then I think there are other counterbalancing reactions.  In fact I see no reason why both sides of gather-and-redistribute politics wouldn’t have existed in forager tribes.

  • Dbonar

    Surely the traditional alms professional is organized religion.

    • Matthew Graves

       Indeed. I’m sort of amazed Robin missed that.

    • Kebko

      I was thinking political parties and their associated bureaucracies.

      • Wiki

         A lot of the revolutions of the early modern years were about States displacing or weakening the Church.  See:  Confiscations of church lands in the French Revolution or the earlier creation of the Church of England.

      • JL

        I was thinking the same. Perhaps in times past (and in some countries, to this day) it was organized religion.

        But in modern secular democracies it is – without a doubt – politicians (Food stamps, social security, medicare, medicaid). And they are very well organized, extremely pampered and they tend to win most fights with other groups.

    • ZHD

      First thought in my mind as well. Down the street from me at night these guys do exactly that: 

  • john

    Teaching and diagnosing/treating illnesses are both specialized skills; not just anybody can walk in and be a competent teacher or doctor. What is the equivalent skill for alms? Surely not the actual production of food or construction of shelter, since that’s not specific to poor people.

  • Jim

    encompassing profession of “feeders”

    Do farmers partly play off of this to get aid.  They say things like “We feed you”. 

  • “Even so, there does seem to be an as yet largely unused opening for a feeding profession.”

    You are incorrect its used.  Feeders are very heavily subsidized.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Alms is not about alms experts()