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IS THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBLE FOR CARING FOR THE NEEDY?
Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”[i] This is a concept that the United States has put into action. America continues to be number one in the world for charitable giving. Eighty-nine percent of American households give an average of $1,620 to charity annually. Our charitable giving was $308 billion in 2008, accounting for 2.2 percent of our Gross National Product (GNP) in 2008, which is higher than any other country in the world.[ii] This clearly shows America does not have a charity problem – and shows that Americans are fully capable of giving away their own money to good causes. Yet, there is still a debate over whether the government should be acting on our behalf to give to the needy.
It is important to address two myths about charity in America. First, America’s Founders were very careful in limiting government and leaving many responsibilities to American citizens. This is one that was clearly left to America’s citizens, not its government. Second, supporting limited government and being against broad government entitlement programs does not mean you are heartless and selfish. In fact, conservatives give significantly more to charity every year than liberals. They simply believe communities, churches and other organizations are better at spending their money than the federal government. America does not have a charity problem – we have a government problem. President Obama supports plans to reduce tax deductions for those who give to charitable causes, while raising taxes to cover more broad government welfare programs. There is a clear threat against charity in America, and one which must be met with opposition.
What would America’s founders say?
The Founding Fathers seriously debated the role of the federal government and settled on a list of specific powers to be given to Congress in Article 1, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. While this list includes coining money, establishing a military, creating a postal system, and enacting immigration laws, the Constitution does not give government the power to use taxpayer funds for charity.
Some have argued that the government does have the authority to participate in charity, basing their claim on the portion of Section 8 of Article 1 which states that Congress shall “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States…” However, the Founders made efforts to ensure this clause was not misinterpreted. James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” as the principal author of the document, stated the following:
"With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers (enumerated in the Constitution) connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."[iii]
Not only does the government not have the authority to give to charity, but it has a clear track record of being incredibly inefficient. Any new responsibility the government has taken on results in high administrative costs just to oversee and spend more money – with inefficient results. Most studies show that seventy percent of every dollar intended for government assistance goes toward maintaining the bureaucracy, compared to thirty percent on average for private charity. So, why would we want to continue to give up more rights to the government for them to use more of our money to do something less effectively?
Conservatives are Not Heartless
Debunking the myth – Some argue that those who do not support government entitlement programs are heartless, selfish and greedy. Since when does giving directly to causes for which you have a passion, rather than having it taken from you by government to be redistributed in ways you did not intend, and may not support, constitute greed?
In his book, “Who Really Cares,” Arthur Brooks cites data showing that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals.[iv] Other estimates place this percentage even higher. The key is that those who believe government should have a limited role often believe other entities should have an increased role – such as churches and charitable organizations which are best suited to care for the needy.
Threat to charitable giving – While President Obama has been supporting a significant increase in the role of government, he is also strongly supporting plans to discourage Americans from giving to charity by reducing tax deductions for charitable contributions. It is estimated that even a decrease in the deduction for contributions by wealthy Americans could result in a drop of as much as $3.87 billion for the non-profit sector which is already seeing a decrease in contributions due to the economic climate.[v] This would set a dangerous beginning to further discouragement of charitable giving and more cuts in deduction amounts for individuals who give to charity. Moreover, it creates a greater demand for government services, creating a larger dependent class for programs that are already overburdened and inefficient. Given the fact that government attempts to limit the deduction for charitable contributions will have the effect of harming the non-profit sector and advancing the public sector, what are their true motives?
Conclusion: America continues to be the leader in giving to those in need. This is because we have enjoyed significant freedoms – freedoms which are slowly being threatened by an ever expanding federal government. It is clear that our Founding Fathers wanted charity to come from American citizens and not the federal government. It is evident that those who believe in limited government do in fact care for the needy, and give significantly more each year than those who put their faith in big government. Charitable giving is currently being threatened as the government is trying to increase its size and scope, while planning to discourage individual charitable giving by decreasing tax deductions. It is important to recognize the importance of individuals being involved in charity, that charity is a voluntary and not a compulsory act, and that any path leading away from high individual charitable giving and towards big government welfare is a realignment of public and non-profit sector roles, and is a very dangerous path for our republic to take.
[ii] National Philanthropic Trust. (2009). Philanthropic Statistics. Retrieved online from: http://www.nptrust.org/philanthropy/philanthropy_stats.asp
[iv] Brooks, A. C. (2006). Who Really Cares – America’s Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why it Matters. Basic Books: New York, NY.
[v] Rucker, P. (2009, March 26). Obama Defends Push to Cut Tax Deductions for Charitable Gifts. The Washington Post. Retrieved online from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/25/AR2009032503103.html