Why Private Charity Can’t Replace Government Programs


One of the arguments from conservatives and libertarians that leaves me shaking my head is the claim that if the government would just stop helping poor people, private charity would make up the difference. Christopher Flavelle crunches the numbers and shows why this is nonsense.

A third reason is scale. The food stamps program cost $78 billion last year, and Medicaid cost $251 billion. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or what used to be called welfare, cost another $31 billion. Once the Obamacare exchanges reach something like full capacity in 2017, federal subsidies for insurance on those exchanges is projected to cost about $108 billion. And that’s before we even mention Social Security, which cost $773 billion in 2012.

So the idea that a reduction in these programs could somehow be made up for by an increase in private giving just doesn’t reflect reality. In a country where 57 million people don’t have health insurance and one in four children live in poverty, falling support for government welfare programs can’t be defended on the grounds that Americans remain individually charitable.

Americans gave $318 billion to charity last year, but a huge portion of that does nothing to help reduce poverty. A third of that total is comprised of what people give to their churches, of which only a small portion goes to actual charity. A bunch more goes to things like Little League or school programs for their own children and another portion goes to non-profit foundations that are really just political advocacy groups.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    One of the arguments from conservatives and libertarians that leaves me shaking my head is the claim that if the government would just stop helping poor people, private charity would make up the difference.

    And it would, too.

    Oh, you meant the difference between nearly starving in the cold and not starving at all? I misunderstood.

  2. Dexeron says

    What really frustrates me is the argument that private charity is better because it’s not “forced.” That government programs, being funded by tax dollars and not assigned voluntarily on the part of the “donor”, is somehow not “true compassion” or “true charity.” And the insistence that the question over whether aid originates from a place of “true” compassion or not is more important than the question of whether hungry children get to actually eat or not.

  3. Chiroptera says

    But what’s the alternative to private charity? Government programs? Seriously? As someone on Mano’s blog reminded us, paying taxes is exactly the same thing as armed thugs breaking into your home and taking your stuff. Do you really want armed thugs breaking into your home and taking your stuff? I didn’t think so.

  4. karmacat says

    Actually, paying taxes is the price we pay for civilization. Without taxes there would be no infrastructure, no regulation, no schools, etc. Democracy is how we determine how to tax and where to send the money. Democracy, of course, is the worst system for this except for all the rest. So, let me know when you come up with a better system

  5. karmacat says

    Government is in some ways better at delivering charity. It has more resources to detect and prevent fraud. Of course, it is not a perfect system

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    Government is in some ways better at delivering charity. It has more resources to detect and prevent fraud.

    That’s another reason not to use it.

  7. eric says

    paying taxes is exactly the same thing as armed thugs breaking into your home and taking your stuff.

    Yeah! What gave them these jack-booted thugs the idea they could lay and collect taxes to provide for the general welfare!?!!

  8. raven says

    A third of that total is comprised of what people give to their churches, of which only a small portion goes to actual charity.

    QFT!!!

    The vast majority of donations to churches are not charity!!!

    I crunched the numbers once. The churches take in about $90 billion a year.
    1. 88% of church intake goes for homeostasis. The building, utilities, salaries, etc..

    2. Some of the rest is pass through to the national organization for their homeostasis. Some goes for missionary activities. Some goes for “charity”. Much of the charity is internal to the members or part of a bribes for conversion scheme.

    I’d estimate that maybe $5 billion of that $90 billion or so goes to actual charity.

  9. raven says

    FWIW, the churches are having financial problems themselves.

    Part of it is hangover from Bush’s Great Recession. A lot of it is declining membership.

    Keeping a church running is expensive. Those big old buildings take a lot of maintenance money. Plus a lot of money gets siphoned off by some of the leaders to buy mansions, fast cars, and luxury goods.

    Around 4,000 churches close every year. If you expect the churches to replace welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps, forget it. It’s not possible.

    In fact, the churches themselves are heavy users of government welfare. They get huge tax breaks and hundreds of millions USD in government aid aka “faith based initiatives.”

  10. doublereed says

    I thought the idea is that you would lower taxes based on reduced government spending and then that money would be used for private charity.

    I mean it doesn’t work in the real world. It goes against all empirical data, but libertarians don’t care about the real world.

  11. raven says

    wikipedia:

    For fiscal year 2005, more than $2.2 billion in competitive social service grants were awarded to faith-based organizations. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2005, the total dollar amount of all grants awarded to FBOs increased by 21 percent (GAO 2006:43[3]). The majority of these grants were distributed through state agencies to local organizations in the form of formula grants (GAO 2006:17[3]).

    The US churches get $2.2 billion from the federal government in faith based initiatives.

    Some of that might go to charity. Much of it goes for internal church use to fix the buildings, repave the parking lots, salaries, and so on. It’s basically a slush fund for them.

  12. raven says

    wikipedia:

    The second head of the department, Jim Towey, in a session of “Ask the Whitehouse” dated November 26, 2003, stated in regard to a question about pagan faith-based organizations:

    “I haven’t run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can’t be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.”[13]

    Pagans reacted angrily to the label “fringe group”, the suggestion that pagans are uncompassionate, the idea that they would apply for funding only to promote ideology, and the exclusion of pagan organizations implicit in the statement.[14]

    The Bush faith based initiative was and is basically just welfare for the xians, mostly the fundies.

    They refused to give any to Pagans. In fact, the head insulted them. Religious discrimination is illegal but that didn’t stop them.

    I see this a lot. Some xians hate Pagans and they face discrimination in jobs, housing, and occasional violence from the fundies. Xians spent nearly 2,000 years genociding the Pagans. They thought they got every one of them. Easy to see why, they did kill or convert almost all of them. And now…they are back.

  13. John Hinkle says

    If the government didn’t have to pay for all the lazy lobster-eating, caddie-driving moochers, just think of all the extra brown people we could bomb.

  14. lpetrich says

    My favorite take on that argument is to apply it to something that the right wing desperately wants government to do: protection. Here goes:

    If government military and police forces are abolished, then private charity will have no trouble protecting people who cannot afford to protect themselves.

  15. Robert B. says

    As someone on Mano’s blog reminded us, paying taxes is exactly the same thing as armed thugs breaking into your home and taking your stuff. Do you really want armed thugs breaking into your home and taking your stuff? I didn’t think so.

    I sort of agree, Chiroptera, except that governments have actual armed thugs who actually kill and imprison people. Objecting to the part where they spend some of their loot on feeding hungry people and healing sick people is downright perverse.

    Also, think even bigger picture. The government taking some of your money without your permission behind the pseudo-ethical veil of “law” is oppressive, sure. But society letting you starve when they have plenty of food, or die of treatable disease when they have plenty of medicine, behind the pseudo-ethical veil of “property” is at least as bad. The concept of property is just a social tool. It is in no way worth making corpses over.

    Basically, keep people alive first, and figure out the rest of it later.

  16. BCat70 says

    I have always been suprised that this even comes up anymore.
    Step 1. Read Upton Sinclairs book The Jungle.
    Step 2. There is no step 2.

    How can these people not figure out that if private charity had historically worked, social democracy would never have been put to committee ?

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