Private philanthropy or public safety nets?

One of the topics of major disagreement in the the debate about the national debt and  the cuts needed to get our debt under control is the role of programs funded by our tax dollars which provide a so-called “safety net” for those who fall on hard times. There are those who feel it is our responsibility as a society to provide for the basic needs of all people and the best way to make sure that everyone has a roof over their heads, food on the table and medical care when they are sick is for the government to provide for those who can’t provide for themselves. Proponents of these kinds of programs believe it is the moral responsibility of citizens to look out for one another. They believe the most effective way to do this is through government programs.

Others feel that caring for the sick, the poor, children and the elderly is indeed a moral responsibility, but that it is not a responsibility of government, but of individuals and private philanthropy. Many believe that government programs make us, as individuals, feel like we are not personally responsible for those who are in need. Some maintain that we have come to expect the government to take care of us. Some say the government lessens our ability to care for others and ourselves by taking, in the form of taxes, money which we could use more effectively ourselves to fund programs to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and help the sick.

Before the Great Depression of the 1930’s a majority of the efforts to provide for the poor and needy came from private charity. Orphanages were funded by religious communities. Hospitals were owned and run by churches. Feeding programs were paid for by private donations and volunteer efforts. There were many people who fell through the cracks and many organizations that struggled to fill the needs of the many poor around them. When the economy fell apart, those programs were overwhelmed. The people who were donating money and volunteering their time sometimes found themselves standing in the line, waiting for a hand out. Giving to private charities dried up as people’s jobs disappeared and their nest eggs evaporated. Programs on a much larger scale were required.

Many of the problems faced by the poor today are still beyond the ability of charity to solve. If individual responsibility for the poor and individual charity were enough to do what needs to be done, why is there still a problem? What keeps us from giving enough to feed everyone who is hungry? Why can’t food pantries and soup kitchens feed everyone who is hungry, every day? What keeps us from seeing that everyone who needs them has glasses and has their teeth fixed? What prevents us from making sure that all children have adequate child care so their parents can work? Why don’t we do it and make government programs irrelevant?

Do we really have to pay so much in taxes that we don’t have anything left? Do you have enough left after taxes to have a new cell phone every time your contract is up? Do you have enough money to hop in your car and drive 150 miles to see a concert? Do you have enough to replace your computer every couple of years, not because it doesn’t work, but because new ones can do so many more things? Don’t we spend money on many things that we really don’t need, but want, even after the tax bill is due? So is it really true that for most of us that we don’t have enough to be help the poor, the sick and the hungry because we have to pay taxes?

Perhaps our tax bill is simply another justification for our not being generous to others. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that if we did not have to pay income or other taxes, we would still not put that money away for a rainy day nor would we really give it to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross or our church’s hunger appeal. Most of us would simply spend it on our daily living. We’ll fix the washing machine, paint the living room, go out to eat and day by day our tax savings would just disappear on meeting our own needs.

If reducing taxes increased charitable giving we should have seen an increase in giving when congress and President Bush cut taxes in the last decade. The opposite happened. Charitable giving went down because, in reality, much giving is motivated by the tax deductions which accompany nontaxable donations. When the estate tax was decreased, the tax savings provided by giving some wealth away was no longer needed and benevolence to foundations and nonprofits fell off dramatically.

If we do give to charities, we are often very selective about the charities and who is helped by the money we give. We sometimes set very narrow criteria for deciding who receives our gifts. We attach strings to be sure the recipient uses the gift for the purpose we outline, and nothing else. We decide what the needy need. We are much more likely to help those we know, especially if they are like us. Be honest, do you go to benefit suppers for people who are sick if you don’t know them? How many of us have held a dinner to help someone suffering from AIDS or fighting alcoholism or mental illness? Who cares for those who have no friends or families or whose friends and families are just as hard up as they are? Do we expect the elderly to beg for help from their children or their neighbors? Should they have to give up all their pride in order to have an adequate standard of living?

It is not hard for charitable organizations to find help if there is an earthquake or tsunami. Food pantries overflow with generous donations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The shelves are never quite as full in the middle of February or September. Food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children Programs and other government programs, on the other hand, feed people all year around.

Government safety nets to not provide everyone with the help they need. The bureaucracy needed to guard against fraud and to ensure compliance with the rules costs a lot. There is still fraud and there are people who abuse the systems. There are many needs not met and many people who fall through the cracks.

Neither private charity nor the government can provide everything we need to care for each other. We need both systems. The debate should not be whether we have one system or the other, but how the two can cooperate and work better together.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


One thought on “Private philanthropy or public safety nets?

  1. Marcy Svenningsen

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think you really brought out the crux of the discussion – private versus public helping of those who truly need assistance. I personally believe in the idea of a compassionate government that recognizes when it’s citizens need help and does something about it. Can we go overboard – yes. Have we on some things – yes. Better that though then turning our collective backs and saying, “too bad, sure hope you make it”.

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