Some Words About Holiday Giving

nkristof2In yesterday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof attempted to shame liberals into increasing our donations to those most in need this season (here, including the following)…

Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.

Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

Other research has reached similar conclusions. The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.

It’s hard for me to criticize someone like Kristof, who has reported courageously from some places of true hardship in the world. I consider him someone generally well qualified to act as a voice for those most destitute individuals who have no one else to speak out on their behalf.

However, I’d like to point out a few things.

I don’t know by what means Brooks was able to determine who was liberal and who was conservative; even though I’m sure Brooks asked someone point blank, Kristof’s column, for example, claims that conservatives also give more blood than liberals. Now you have to provide a lot of information to the Red Cross before you donate, which is only right, but political inclination isn’t one of them, and no one has ever asked me that (maybe “Do you want some cookies, a bag of pretzels or an iced tea?” after donating, but never which party I support or which candidate, not that such a question would make me happy anyway).

Kristof, though, actually addresses his own concern I believe when he notes above that “liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad.”

Now I haven’t studied this issue, but I believe that it makes much more sense to allocate tax dollars for the purposes of providing for those most in need than to make individual contributions (and I think this supports that argument, in particular the following)…

Americans strongly favor government aid to the poor. The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in the summer of 2007, found that 62% of Americans agree that the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt. There is considerable agreement among members of major religious traditions, including the unaffiliated, on this point. But Americans are divided on who they think can do the best job of providing social services for the needy. According to an August 2008 survey by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 31% of Americans say religious organizations can do the best job. The same number (31%) says federal and state government agencies can do the best job, and about as many (29%) say nonreligious, community-based organizations can do the best job.

And in terms of conservatives donating privately versus liberals, I think that a 2-to-1 ratio favoring conservatives, given the latter’s antipathy to government, is about where it should be.

I realize this is a matter of political philosophy concerning what, say, a liberal or progressive thinks government should do versus someone who is a conservative, but it makes sense to me to use the force of government (that is to say, us) to see to it that the donated money is allocated as efficiently as possible by the charitable institution, and there is less of a chance of that happening if you’re talking about a mass of individual donations to any charity under the sun (again, though, as the Pew post notes, many people think faith-based groups should be part of this process).

As for me, I think another reason government should be “calling the shots” is due to the truly sad state of our economy. I know a few people who are out of work right now, as I’m sure many of you do also; their politics are similar to mine, and I can guarantee you that charitable giving isn’t at the top of their list at the moment – they’re more concerned with making the mortgage payments and paying for utilities and feeding and clothing their families. And I actually think it’s kind of crass for Kristof or anyone else to wag a metaphorical finger at people because donations are down; I’m sorry we’re not all a well-ensconced, widely known and celebrated columnist for the New York Times who has the means to donate as he chooses, but we’re not.

(And if you choose to donate individually, you’re going to be dealing with an onslaught of phone solicitations, and with economic times being what they are, that’s going to make the proverbial donation pie even smaller when fewer people are able to say yes.)

So with this in mind, I would ask that you look at this analysis of how much money Bushco has provided for faith-based organizations to perform charitable work (you knew I’d lead back to them on this, didn’t you?) and how that money has been misused (such as having to defend itself in lawsuits such as the Prison Fellowship Ministries case), as well as other circumstances in which some of these groups proselytize where they shouldn’t (see David Kuo’s book “Tempting Faith: An Insider’s Story of Political Seduction” here to get an idea of how Bushco typically played the fundies, in particular, including those like Kuo who set out to do good).

As Kuo tells us here…

I worked for William Bennett and John Ashcroft in the mid-1990s on issues like immigration, welfare, and education as they tried to promote a more compassionate Republican approach. While pure (compassionate conservatives) were never terribly powerful in Republican circles, Bush’s endorsement of this progressive conservatism was exciting. And when he became the president, there was every reason to believe he’d be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor, which was daringly radical. After all, there were specific promises he intended to keep.

Sadly, four years later these promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact. In June 2001, the promised tax incentives for charitable giving were stripped at the last minute from the $1.6 trillion tax cut legislation to make room for the estate-tax repeal that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. The Compassion Capital Fund has received a cumulative total of $100 million during the past four years. And new programs including those for children of prisoners, at-risk youth, and prisoners reentering society have received a little more than $500 million over four years–or approximately $6.3 billion less than the promised $6.8 billion.

Kuo also tells us that, as far as he’s concerned, both political parties “played to stereotype — Republicans were indifferent to the poor and the Democrats were allergic to faith” (and though I think it’s odious that Barack Obama is dealing with Rick Warren the way he is given the latter’s homophobia, for better or worse, he’s trying to bury that canard about the party for good).

And as Bill Berkowitz’s post tells us, there are three issues that I believe should be addressed concerning the effectiveness of faith-based groups:

  • Secularization. Why should the government recruit a religious group to provide services if the first condition of getting the government money is that the services must not involve religion? Why should a faith-based organization take the money on this condition?
  • Size. Because much of this government money goes for general “capacity-building” for sectarian organizations’ charitable programs, is the government also paying to expand recipients’ capacity for overtly religious programs?
  • Effectiveness. Are religiously inspired groups better, or worse, than secular groups at providing social services? Devout providers say that their faith matters, but does it make a measurable difference in outcomes?
  • So to recap, Dubya has basically been pushing faith-based donations as part of his “compassionate conservative” con, but when push comes to shove, those funds have always been sacrificed for those “unfortunates” of the pay-no-price, bear-no-burden investor class who always managed to receive tax cuts even though they were never needed. And since those cuts resulted in monies not paid to our government to keep our infrastructure running efficiently (to say nothing of the pitiful job creation numbers during the last eight years), that resulted in fewer donation dollars for the rest of us.

    And even though Brooks and Kristof may think that “the financial ability to contribute to charity, and the willingness to do so, are strikingly unrelated,” I can most definitely tell you in our case that that is not true (and speaking of holidays, Happy Hanukkah to those who will begin their celebration tonight).

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