Let’s Get Government out of the Charity Business

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Published on: December 16, 2014

The story is told that when Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett served in the US Congress (between 1827 and 1835) he voted for a bill appropriating $20,000 for relief for victims of a fire that broke out in Georgetown.

When he returned home, a constituent farmer chastised him for supporting the bill and for “giving what is not yours to give.”

The farmer told Crockett the constitution does not grant Congress the power to give charity and if it did, “You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and favoritism and corruption, on the one hand, and robbing the people on the other.”

We are far from those days. Supreme Court decisions over the years have opened the door for rationalizing just about anything under the spending authority of the Congress.

Those who crafted the American constitution did not intend limitations on the federal government’s role out of mean spiritedness. They did so out of a sense of what would best serve the public.

It stands to reason that bureaucrats spending other people’s money – funds taken by force – is not going to produce good results.

According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, and the staff of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), who commissioned the report, combined annual federal and state spending on antipoverty programs exceeds $ 1 trillion. About 75 percent comes from the federal government.

These funds, which include programs such as welfare, food stamps, low-income housing programs, child care assistance, etc. are programs that mostly came onto the American scene with the War on Poverty and, in that they are focused on helping the less fortunate, are what it is usually considered charity.

These programs are notoriously wasteful and are too often counterproductive and motivated by political gain rather than genuine sincerity to really help people.

Funds extracted from taxpayers, dispensed by bureaucrats, under rules and conditions designed by other bureaucrats, remove personal responsibility from both the giving and receiving ends of the equation.

In addition to waste, unintended consequences of this social engineering has produced government dependence, family breakdown, and removal of the sense on the part of recipients that they bear responsibility for their own lives.

As government expands, private resources are squeezed out.

While government spends a trillion dollars annually on antipoverty programs, total private charity in the US in 2013, according to Giving USA, was about a third of this – $335 billion. And much of this, contributions to universities, museums, etc., doesn’t go to causes we normally think of as charity.

There are initiatives to come up with ways to spend government funds more efficiently. Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray have introduced legislation to create a commission to better “use data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures.”

A new book by Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Greg Margolis, “Show Me the Evidence,” reviews “evidence-based” strategies for what works as a precondition for federal funding of programs.

But why focus on trying to make government more efficient rather than on what government should or should not do?

I run a non-profit and I know what it means to deliver results in order to satisfy donors and raise funds. It is no different than any commercial enterprise.

In my column last week, I proposed 5 conservative reforms to help low income communities transition off destructive government dependence. One idea is dollar for dollar tax credits for private charitable contributions going to designated low-income zip codes.

Can there be any doubt if a trillion dollars in private giving was going to low –income America, rather than government money, everyone would be better off?

Rather than trying to fix government, let’s put it back in its constitutional place and restore private decision-making and responsibility to American life.

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