The economy is struggling. Some people cannot pay their bills. Others can pay their bills, but are concerned about prospects . Many are looking for the government to get involved – to bail out those in need.
Traditional political labels associate liberals with helping others, because liberals tend to favor government-transfer payment plans, while conservatives are often portrayed as selfish and mean, similar to the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, because they normally oppose government-transfer payment plans. Who’s right?
What is the best way to help those in need? There are several options: ignore the need (not helpful); have the government bail out the needy (using taxpayer money – remember the government has no money of its own), encourage private donors/foundations and non-profits to do more.
The purpose of the book “Who Really Cares,” (Basic Books, New York, 2006 ) is to “make the point that charity matters,” according to Arthur Brooks, the author. Brooks notes “charity is important to our personal prosperity, happiness, health, and the ability to express ourselves humanely.” While some might consider government social services part of charity, Brooks does not.. “Charity is different than government spending. Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues.”
So what makes personal giving different than government-transfer payments if both result in needs being met? Government payments are the result of anonymous people determining who should receive the benefit, while charitable acts involve interaction with the community and decisions regarding whom to give to. “Charitable acts, such as giving and volunteering, tend to strengthen social networks between people. These networks stimulate economic success,” according to Brooks.
In addition, charitable giving moves the focus from our selves to others. It’s not just the amount of money that we can give, it’s also the ability to care and focus on someone other than ourselves. Brooks cited a study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School “in which a group of 132 multiple sclerosis patients was split into two groups; one group was assigned to act charitably towards members of the other. The researchers found that the givers experienced a ‘dramatic change in their lives,’ in confidence, self awareness, and depression, they enjoyed between three and seven times more improvement than the receivers of help.”
So, not only does charity assist those in need, it provides benefits to those who give. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to feel more confidence, self-awareness or joy when sending my money to the government.
“Studies have found that the more one volunteers, the greater the benefits,” according to Brooks. This reflects that charity is not just about money, but also interest, time and connection. My friends who have worked at non-profits tell me they love to receive money, but are equally thrilled to receive time and talent. The latter gifts allow them to save money and thereby serve more of their target population.
As a person with core conservative values, I believe smaller government is better than bigger government, and the more personal involvement in the community the better. I find it hard to believe that if I send my money to Washington that the government will determine the best way to spend on those in my community, city or state who need help. The only part of the equation that I can be sure of is that the government will take and spend my money.
Regarding the question of who gives to charity, Brooks found that “People who favor government income redistribution are significantly less likely to behave charitably than those who do not….. For many Americans, political opinions are a substitute for personal checks; but people who value economic freedom, and thus bridle against forced income redistribution are far more charitable.”
For instance, “people who disagreed that the government should improve living standards – believing that ‘people should take care of themselves’ instead – were 25 percent of the population, but donated 31 percent of the blood.” They were against government-transfer programs, but donated their blood on a higher level per person than did those who agreed that the government should improve living standards.
Did we forget that WE are the government? The money the government uses is taxpayer money. We vote politicians into office and send them our money.
The good news is that charitable giving appears to pay back, according to Brooks. “Two people who are identical with respect for age, religion, politics, sex, and race. The only difference is one gives money and volunteers his time annually, but the other does neither…the charitable person will earn, on average, about $14,000 more per year that the uncharitable person.”
Brooks determines health, happiness and income are part of a reinforcing cycle whose opposite side includes giving and helping. Prosperous people are more likely to be charitable, but charity can also help to make people more prosperous.
In a recent article about money and happiness, “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” (Dunn, Aknin and Norton: Science Magazine; March 21, 2008) the authors note “that people appear to overlook the benefits of prosocial spending,” and that, in fact, political interventions that encourage “people to invest income in others rather than in themselves – may be worthwhile” and might translate into increased national happiness.
So when the tax refund lands in your mailbox – spend a little time thinking about giving it to others, and making yourself a little happier, and investing in your future prosperity.
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