The Limits of Charity



At the holidays, there is usually an upsurge in charitable giving. Not only are individuals making end-of-year donations for tax purposes, but people are generally filled with good will at this time of year. Indeed, concerted efforts at philanthropy can be effective at achieving very specific goals. Take, for instance, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised millions for ALS research. Researchers have said that the funds raised during that drive substantially contributed to breakthroughs in their research. (Washington Post, July 27, 2016)

Yet when it comes to helping fellow Americans meet basic needs for food, shelter, and healthcare, there are limits to how much private citizens can provide. As the incoming Republican-dominated Congress led by Paul Ryan looks poised to reduce or dismantle many of the New Deal programs that led Americans out of the Great Depression, it is worth considering what role the government should have in seeing that no Americans are in desperate want.

Two huge events in our recent history revealed just how limited private philanthropy is in a major crisis. The first was the Great Depression of the 1930s. As Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal describes in “The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity,” private social service agencies at the time were overrun with requests for aid that they simply could not supply (The Atlantic, March 24, 2014).  As a result, “communities turned to the New Deal to provide the baseline of security that their voluntary societies were unable to offer during a deep recession.”

Like the Great Depression of the ’30s, the recent Great Recession showed the inability of the private sector to alleviate suffering as unemployment rose and wage stagnation threw people on the edge into poverty. As Konczal mentions, during this time the amount of private giving on the part of both individuals and corporations fell. This meant even fewer material resources for a growing number of families in crisis. Indeed, it is only due to government programs such as food assistance and unemployment insurance that the suffering was as limited as it was. Furthermore, government bailout of the banking industry and Federal Reserve policy helped assure that the Great Recession did not become another Great Depression.

Conservative insistence upon reducing government aid rests on the belief that people are inherently lazy and will cease to look for work if given too many handouts. But private philanthropy can actually be more demoralizing than public assistance. Private organizations and individuals can decide that certain segments of the population or certain behaviors don’t meet their moral standards, and they can deny assistance on that basis. In fact, there has been a push in recent years to force public aid recipients to undergo drug testing and to limit the types of food they can buy with food stamps. We shouldn’t be forcing human beings to prove they are worthy of assistance.

Is there a role for charity in our society? Of course. Through our own philanthropy, we can provide a wide range of benefits: medical research funding, disaster relief, college scholarships, wish experiences for young cancer patients, arts patronage. The list goes on and on. But history has shown us the limits of charity to assure that basic human needs are met for all of our citizens.

The belief that all Americans should have a basic standard of living despite what hardships may befall them is an ideal that I believe our society should strive for. And the only truly effective way to reach all Americans is a system of federal guarantees and insurance paid for by all of us for the betterment of our entire society.




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