Obligatory Charity - There Is No Such Thing

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

3/29/2009 12:01:00 AM - Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Charity, giving and helping others are values that have made America great.  Those who give more in terms of money and time tend to be happier than those who don’t, writes Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” 

The importance of public service has provided the impetus that led to the passage this week of two bills: the Serve America Act in the Senate and the Generations Invigorating Volunteering and Education Act, or GIVE, in the House.  Their stated goal: more public service. But their outcome will be - more government intrusion and more government jobs. 

“Let us be clear,” writes Brooks, “Government spending is not charity.  It is not voluntary sacrifice by individuals.  No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing for public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues.”  Those of us who pay taxes know all too well that our payments are required and that, while we have elected officials who are responsible for distributing our tax dollars, we often don’t know where the money goes or don’t agree with how our tax dollars are spent.

This past week, at a dinner for Kate’s Club, a non-profit organization that empowers children and teens facing life after the death of a parent of sibling, I was reminded of the importance of passion, involvement and personal commitment in volunteer organizations. 

When she was 12, Kate Atwood lost her mother.  Inspired to help others through their grieving process, Kate founded Kate’s Club in 2003.  The effect of Kate’s Club is best told by those have been helped. Shaina Pittman, a Kate’s Club participant wrote, “Ms.Kate told us that just because we lost a loved one doesn’t mean we are alone or that we are any different from other kids, that we are special, and that just because that one tragic thing happened doesn’t mean we have to be sad all of the time. I loved that saying. I knew that I would always remember that.”

This kind of interaction represents the core of charity – one person helping another based on one person’s passions and another person’s needs.  This wonderful organization operates from money and time donated by “corporations, private foundations and individual donors,” according to the Kate’s Club’s website.

Last year, Kate’s Club served more than 200 Atlanta children who had lost a parent or sibling.  This organization is a microcosm of our nation’s history of public service and charitable giving.  A need exists, an organization is founded and people are helped.

Charity matters not only to those who are helped, but also to those who give. Government spending – well – I cannot remember the last time I felt happy to send my money to Washington, D.C., where someone else got to determine how it might be best used.  Nor can I remember feeling connected with those who might receive a portion of the dollars that I pay in taxes.

In “Gross National Happiness,” Brooks writes, “Leaders need to take our giving seriously.  It is not a dalliance, or an expendable substitute for government spending.” Unfortunately, that is what Congress is doing trying to do.

While trying to increase public service by spending more taxpayers’ money – President Barack Obama is at the same time stifling the incentive for individuals to make personal contributions.  Today, people in the top tax brackets get a tax break for each personal dollar donated to charities that ranges from 33 to 35 percent.  So if they give $1,000 of their money to a charity – the after-tax (cash) impact to them is on average $660. 

Obama’s proposed change would increase the personal after-tax (cash) impact of the $1,000 charitable gift to $780.  In order for donors to remain cash-neutral, they would have to give eight percent less to the charity.  What will happen is that personal charitable giving, so important in this time of need, will be reduced.

If the goal is to promote good works, then let us do that directly, maintaining the current tax rates for charitable giving and letting people instead of government decide where their money should go.  If the goal is to create government jobs to employ those who are unemployed in work that will benefit the public good – then let us call it workfare and create a temporary workforce that our tax money will fund.

Let’s not confuse the two – one is charity and the other is government work – the two are not the same.  They are not identical twins – they are not brothers who look an awful lot alike – it’s more like big brother who is making decisions for you.