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Charity Begins at the IRS

Periodically, someone releases a report on how miserly Americans are. The most recent pontifications on this issue arose after Jan Egeland, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, accused the United States of being “stingy” during the relief efforts for the Tsunami in Asia. Mr. Egeland was speaking broadly about foreign aid, not specifically about Tsunami relief, and his theme is now being carried by Kofi Annan and others as they try to embarrass the major economic powers of the West into increasing their foreign aid budgets for the undeveloped world. There is a legitimate debate over whether America should be measured in this latest effort on its numerical contribution (largest in the world) or on its fraction of GDP (fairly small) — and on whether or not indirect measures of American contributions to global development, like individual charitable giving (and like the fact that we carry the lion’s share of the burden for spending on military forces available for global security and relief missions) — should count toward our “share”. There is also a legitimate debate, yet to be started, on whether we are getting a decent benefit for what we are already spending — and whether increasing our contributions through those traditional channels merely throws good money after bad.

But we have the same debates domestically, over welfare of various types, over the continued scourge of homelessness, over inadequate funding for education and inadequate funding for transportation and inadequate funding for health care and on and on. And, at intervals, someone remembers to complain that our rate of private charitable giving has also fallen into the range of abysmal and to lament the decline in moral values and social conscience that must underlie that fall.

The following letter was submitted to The Boston Globe in response to an article by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.  Although the nominal subject of Mr. Aldrich’s piece was legal changes that would affect charitable foundations, he found the time and space also to chastise us, once again, for our greed. The letter was not published.

1 June 2003

Regarding the article by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., “Charity Case: Does Philanthropy Need an Overhaul” (1 June 2003):

Mr. Aldrich notes the contention, it would appear with some sympathy, that Americans — and particularly the rich — are stingy with their charitable giving. No doubt there are many cultural factors which influence this apparent lack of generosity (and one could fill a book with competing theories of who or what is to blame), but I can’t help but wonder whether at least part of the reason lies in the fact that people with any significant income already send so much of that income in taxes to a government which, we are repeatedly told, should and has taken on the responsibility for supporting the less fortunate.

In an age when charity was the primary means for providing a social safety net and cultural enrichment, charity was a matter of moral obligation. We would like to think that is still the case but, according to the CBO, such endeavors now consume somewhere between 55% and 75% of the federal budget; and anyone in the top quintile of income distribution is already providing at least 15%-20% of their income as taxes to various governments in direct support of that. Perhaps direct giving to charity is only 2% of income but, if you add the 15% or more of indirect contribution to the same causes via the channel of government, I’d say we’re doing pretty well.

If the ‘conservative’ belief in private giving as the best route to social insurance sounds naive or cynical, perhaps at least part of the reason is the extent to which ‘liberal’ political successes have transferred so much of the private means of charity to the government in support of just such ends.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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