The Problem with Toys for Tots
Every year, critics of the ever-growing list of US military adventures in the service of a foreign policy based largely upon the whims of the multinational corporations that own most of our politicians are faced with a thorny little question: Do we participate in Toys for Tots toy drives or not? This may seem like a no-brainer to many. After all, what's not to like about a program that gives out more toys to kids at Christmas than any other effort in history? Millions of toys worth billions of dollars have been distributed to kids whose parents can't afford to provide any since the organization's founding in 1947. Sounds great, right? Problem is that the program is run by the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation under the auspices of the US Marine Corps Reserve. The Toys for Tots website states "In 1995, the Secretary of Defense approved Toys for Tots as an official activity of the U. S. Marine Corps and an official mission of the Marine Corps Reserve." Therefore it's not just a charity run by veterans one step removed from their original branch of the service. It's part of the service. So anyone that has even a passing understanding of the role of the military in the maintenance of America's global political and economic regime would have to come to the conclusion that it is pretty much impossible for critics of US foreign policy to support a domestic toy drive by a branch of the US military. For many reasons. But the main one in this case is that the military kills lots of kids in other countries every year; so it's hard to countenance helping them give toys to kids in this country.
I mean, sure, we can mince words about the bulk of those killings being unintentional. And we can also point to the military's more notable efforts in the cause of democracy and freedom. But the fact remains that most of the battles fought by US armed forces these days have very little to do with democracy or freedom. And that it's simply not possible to fight wars (or "police actions") without killing kids ... kids who remain quite dead no matter who wins debates about the circumstances of their deaths. Perhaps that's one reason why Toys for Tots has only very rarely operated in other countries.
A related critique one can level at Toys for Tots is that they provide valuable PR for the military. Teenage prospective recruits can easily miss hearing about the negatives of the US military in this era of dumbed-down news. But they will almost certainly see Toys for Tots operating in their community - and given that many people that enlist in today's volunteer military are from poor families themselves, it's highly likely that they will have been recipients of toys from Toys for Tots at some point in their short lives. So they figure, "cool, the Marines give toys away to kids ... I want to join up and be cool like them." You can't buy that kind of street cred.
OK, but let's say you don't have a problem with fairly direct military involvement in a holiday toy program. Are there other reasons why a reasonable person might chose to refuse to support Toys for Tots?
Yes, I think so. The other big problem with the program is shared by lots of other well-meaning efforts around holiday time. That is, Toys for Tots core mission doesn't address the vast problem of systemic poverty in the US that makes impossible for many families to buy toys for their kids to begin with. And like many charities, it doesn't actually provide what poor people need most - food, clothing, housing, health care and education. Good jobs for those that are able to work, and a regular government check for those that can't.
Such charities will justifiably state that it's not their responsibility to provide all these things. That's the government's role (although some would consider it the role of already cash-strapped religious organizations or simply say that everyone is individually responsible for making their own living no matter what the circumstances). But with the US government still spending a majority of its budget on the military-industrial complex - including the Marines - there's not enough money for existing social service programs to even ameliorate the worst of poverty let alone achieve the mid 20th century goal of eliminating poverty. Especially during a recession. And most especially with corporate-backed right-wing organizations running around claiming we no longer need a government - except, naturally, for the military and the police.
So what to do? For now, I'd say give money to other non-profits that help people in need directly. For example, Open Media Boston has made donations to groups that work with homeless women and children after being invited to a holiday event that asked us to donate to Toys for Tots.
If anyone out there wants to get more ambitious, then you can put a lot of time into working to eliminate poverty. And if you really think it's important to get toys to poor kids - and I certainly don't want to dismiss that issue being a lifelong lover of fun stuff - then perhaps you might put some effort into starting an annual non-military toy drive of your own. If such a drive gets off the ground here in Boston, it should go without saying that this publication will happily help publicize it.
My weekly missive thus concluded, I hope all our viewers have a great holiday.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston