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There’s the way it’s supposed to work and then there’s the way it works September 8, 2007

Posted by Jim Satterfield in Business & Society, Economics, Government, Politics.

If you read blogs and hear the views of American political conservatives it’s hard to miss the philosophy that says that government should be limited and in the more extreme positions doesn’t believe in government social programs at all. This ideology says that people can and should take care of themselves. If something happens and they really do need help then private charities can and should be the ones to help. It derives from the refusal of these ideologues to consider government to be a worthwhile representative of the wish of the people to help their fellow countrymen. The idea is that the only people who can really decide the best way to help others are those who have the money. They might not phrase it so indelicately but that is what it comes down to. Keep the government out of it and as small as possible. But there’s at least one problem with this idea and it isn’t a little one.

The New York Times business section reports on the big charitable donations made by the wealthy in the U.S. Yes, some of the billionaires and multi-millionaires among us are donating very large amounts of money to charities. Well, they’re donating to organizations that earn the label of charity and give those who donate to them the appropriate tax deductions. They are worthwhile organizations of all kinds representing many worthwhile goals and endeavors. But the one thing that must not be forgotten when you hear the arguments concerning private charities taking care of the needy in the United States is that little of the charitable giving done by the wealthy goes to that kind of relief. It goes overseas to people who need it desperately, it goes to scholarship funds, it goes to worthwhile medical research, it goes to universities, it goes to libraries, it goes to symphonies, it goes to museums and it goes to other worthwhile groups and institutions. But not to the people in this country who need help.

Consider this from the article:

Roughly three-quarters of charitable gifts of $50 million and more from 2002 through March 31 went to universities, private foundations, hospitals and art museums, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Of the rest, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for half on the center’s list. That money went primarily to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries. Valuable as that may be, it also meant that the American public effectively underwrote several billion dollars worth of foreign aid by private individuals, even though poll after poll shows Americans are at best ambivalent about using tax dollars in such assistance.

In contrast, few gifts of that size are made to organizations like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and America’s Second Harvest, whose main goals are to help the poor in this country. Research shows that less than 10 percent of the money Americans give to charity addresses basic human needs, like sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the indigent sick, and that the wealthiest typically devote an even smaller portion of their giving to such causes than everyone else.

The emphasis is mine. Yes, less than 10% of money donated to charities in this country overall, not just counting the donations from the wealthy, go to the immediate needs of the less well off among our own countrymen. Is it really the belief of this brand of conservative that somehow should they succeed in eliminating the government programs they would like to see go away that this would magically change? Do they believe that we would somehow discover the magic key that would allow a capitalist system to provide 100% employment with all the jobs being good enough to put a roof over everyone’s head and keep food on the table for the least well paid among us? Is there any real proof to back up these kinds of beliefs? I have yet to see anything but blind faith in the power of the free market to solve problems being cited to back it up. And that’s not a faith I find particularly comforting.



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