Several years ago a fleeting question entered my mind as I wrote a check to the American Cancer Society for a neighborhood block campaign.   Most of my donations until that moment were reactionary – an unwillingness to say no when asked, and the fact that cancer research is important.

If I took an intentional approach to donation, rather than wait to be asked, where would I choose to give my money?

I immediately thought of the The Algebra Project in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.  Its founder, Robert Moses, was an activist in Jackson during the Civil Rights movement.  Harvard educated, he returned many years later as a teacher committed to closing the economic mobility gap that remained. This program focuses on improving high school achievement in advanced mathematics in low income communities, putting its students on a more successful path to college and / or higher paying technical careers. The program has been so successful its model is being implemented in several other communities.

Years later, I learned about Baby’s Space here in Minneapolis, an early childhood intervention program which runs high quality daycare and charter schools. Baby’s Space is neighborhood based and largely neighborhood staffed. Their primary focus is on social emotional health of children and families exposed to poverty and violence. Its design engages the family and the community to recognize how community behavior effects a child’s development. Its founder, Terri Rose, believes that change comes when the community learns to see their behavior from the “baby’s point-of-view.”

I slowly grew into that initial fleeting thought, and over the years have focused what donations I make to non-profits like these, aimed at relieving poverty and inequality. I don’t give enough, and I don’t do enough, but continue to move in this direction.

A few months ago, I heard a speech by Bryan Stevenson he had given in town the day before. Stevenson founded and runs the Equal Justice Initiative, devoting his career as a lawyer to fighting the failures of our justice system and its disproportionate impact on those of color and in poverty.

His focus is on the death penalty, wrongful convictions, inappropriate sentencing, and adjudication of children as adults. His focus is also on compassion, reconciliation and hope.  At the time I made a note to get his book, Just Mercy, and finally finished it a few days ago.

He shows how comfortable we have become with the failures of our justice system.  Often it traps those who are either innocent or able to be rehabilitated.   But instead of helping to salvage these lives, we spend a great deal of money to lock them away and forget about them.  Too often we put the victim in the cell with the criminal.  Too often we release inmates back into the world in far worse emotional and economic shape than when they left it.

But why do I choose these causes over cancer research?

For fiscal year ended in August 2010, the American Cancer Society received over $300 million in donations.  This is just one example, and doesn’t include the Komen Foundation (net public support in 2013 also over $300 million) and other organizations focused on specific types of cancer.

When a new therapy is successful, there are for-profit businesses for which its success is lucrative. Despite the issues we have in healthcare funding, these businesses are profitable because the market is filled with reliable payers.   Financial incentives to cure and manage disease are common.

But poverty and inequality don’t entice entrepreneurship in this manner.  The most privately lucrative endeavor which draws investment dollars is our prison system.  Not only is it not working, in many cases it is the source of our greatest injustices.  Non-profits like the ones I have listed do not have a return for profit seeking investors.  And yet these non-profits have the potential to change lives, and reduce many of the costs to society related to poverty.

Behavioral economists have long recognized that we pull out our wallets when we connect personally with a tale of suffering.

Do you know anyone personally who has been deeply impacted by poverty? Do you know anyone personally whose life has been formed around his experience of violence? Do you know someone who has spent years of her life in prison?  We all know someone effected by cancer.  But poverty and violence and imprisonment are far more centered around class and race.

We are insulated from this suffering by virtue of class.  We readily talk about the cyclical nature of poverty, but rarely acknowledge the cyclical nature of success.  If our good fortune was only a function of hard work, the line between classes would be far more fluid.

So we have to choose to see these issues.  We have to choose to hear the stories of people suffering in this way.  We have to believe these efforts are worth our resources.

Poverty and inequality are cancerous to the human spirit.  So is our disregard for our fellow human beings.  If you do nothing else different, I hope you will take a moment to listen to Bryan Stevenson’s talk.  Because he’s right.  We are not talking about injustice enough, and we need to be.