Mary Katharine Ham

With New Orleans little more than a fetid soup bowl and southern Mississippi reduced to a flat, slab-speckled landscape, as many as 1,000,000 Americans must rely on the kindness of strangers for food, water and other basic needs. They may depend on that kindness for months.
   
 In times like these Americans are reminded of the importance of private charity. It is a lesson we will not soon forget.

     My liberal friends often accuse me of being uninterested in helping the less fortunate simply because I’m conservative. Since I’m not interested in forcing public funding of the government’s social programs, they insist, I must want poor people to suffer. 

     ‘Tis not true.

     There are many reasons conservatives trumpet private charity as the best way to fix societal problems. During this national tragedy, I believe events on the ground will show that it’s not an unreasonable belief.

     First, I don’t believe an individual’s commitment to helping the less fortunate can be measured by the amount of money one thinks the government should take from others. Having money taken from you does not make you charitable. Conversely, believing the government should leave people’s hard-earned money alone does not make one uncharitable.

     Rather, the charity is in the giving. If my liberal friends really believed that arguing for big government programs covered their responsibility to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they’d put on an “I Donated to FEMA April 15th” t-shirt and call it a day. Of course, they won’t do that. If I know them, they’ll give.

     I believe private charity could assuage most of the problems the government purports to solve with programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and welfare. And it can conquer Katrina, too.

     Private giving, according to Chuck Simmins’ blog, is already over $100,000,000 (that’s up from $45,000,000 when I started writing this Thursday morning) and rising. A blogosphere-wide effort to raise money has focused more than 1,000 blogs and their readers on the problem. Thousands of companies are doubling charitable contributions by matching the donations of their employees.

     Furthermore, think of the symbol seen in the background of every newscast, shown providing food and bedding at major shelters. It’s the American Red Cross. While some government programs will spend weeks assessing, the Red Cross is serving.         

     Why? Because private charity is free from much of the bureaucracy that slows the government. FEMA and other federal programs have to wade through a sea of red tape before they can actually wade into New Orleans. They are hampered by reams of rules and regulations. It’s simply the nature of the bureaucratic beast. Luckily, charities are not so encumbered.

     Because well-run charities avoid the trappings of bureaucracy, more of the money donated goes straight to helping the folks in need. I have no hesitation about sending a PayPal payment to a well-known private charity to help with this particular disaster, because I know most of that money will go to those who need it. I can be pretty sure it will be spent wisely. If you ever have that feeling about sending money to the federal government, check the pork projects in the latest transportation bill and think again.

     Private charities often have a better understanding of problems on the ground in their respective areas, and can put money exactly where it belongs. The beauty of private charity is that it gives people like Wizbang! blogger Paul, who is in Tennessee after evacuating New Orleans, the chance to collect money and distribute it directly to the people who need it most.

     “I know 5 families that would break down in tears to know a stranger(s) paid their rent for a month,” Paul said yesterday on Wizbang!

     Today he is collecting money from readers and placing people in temporary apartments with no money spent on overhead. In another case, private charity makes it possible for the ingenuity of a private citizen like Michele to get school supplies to the children who will end up at the Houston Astrodome and likely have to attend school in a new state for months before they can go home. Private charity allows MoveOn.org to set up a site for those who want to donate housing and Bill Hennesy to get more than 200 homes registered in his Katrina Homes campaign.

     Katrina was a breathtaking display of the power of nature to throw our lives into utter disarray. In the coming months, we will witness an equally breathtaking display from regular Americans determined to help put their fellow citizens’ lives back on track. And none of it will come from compelling people to give of their time and money. They will do it voluntarily.        

     Federal and local government programs, of course, are making huge efforts and progress as well. The military and police, needless to say, are always invaluable in search and rescue efforts. I don’t mean to diminish the good work those public servants have done and will continue to do saving and rebuilding lives. What I do say is that private charity allows the generosity and ingenuity of Americans to meet the unpredictability of life head-on in a way a staid government program never could.

     Charity can work quickly. It can be tailored to the needs of specific victims. It can move in unorthodox ways to fix unprecedented problems. And the results can be astounding.
   
 My liberal friends are incredulous when I say that private charity could match the problem-solving power of the federal government. They say their fellow citizens would never give enough of their own volition. I disagree. When the long recovery from Katrina is someday over, I’m confident my fellow Americans will have proved my faith is not misplaced. They may even gain a few new believers along the way.

     From all of us at Townhall, our prayers and thoughts are with those affected by Hurricane Katrina and all of the people helping them. If you have not already given, please donate whatever you can. Some of our favorite charities are the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse.


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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