September 14, 2005
The trouble with philanthropy
Some of the ideas in this post are going to horrify a lot of people. And I'm definitely going to go to philanthropy hell. But I'm going to say it anyway.
I'm not so sure that giving to Katrina relief organizations is such a great idea.
Now hold on there a second, charitably-minded Americans. The generous spirit and civic participation of our country is one of our best qualities, and our generous tax benefits that encourage giving are more sophisticated than most of the rest of the developed world's. But there are some services that our government is perfectly capable of providing with the tax revenue it already has, without everyone having to give even more.
Publicly funded government services exist for a reason. "The market" can go only so far in providing basic and necessary services such as education, healthcare, housing, defense and security, and public transportation for every citizen. Rescue and relief work after a catastrophic natural disaster is the kind of gigantic project that is best handled by the well funded government agencies that exist for the very purpose of providing recovery services.
Giving to post-Katrina relief efforts is now at about $740 million. Total giving could end up surpassing what was raised for 9/11 relief and for tsunami relief in Asia. It's great that Americans are so eager to help their countrypeople who are in desperate situations. But today I was reading an essay by pissed off lefty writer/cartoonist Ted Rall, which is titled "Charities Are For Suckers". I hate that title, but here's what he has to say:
"Why should New Orleans' dispossessed have to live in private shelters? We live in the United States, not Mali. There's only one reason flood victims aren't getting help from the government: because the government refuses to help them. The Red Cross and its cohorts are letting lazy, incompetent and corrupt politicians off the hook, and so are their donors.
"It's ridiculous, but people evidently need to be reminded that the United States is not only the world's wealthiest nation but the wealthiest society that has existed anywhere, ever. The U.S. government can easily pick up the tab for people inconvenienced by bad weather--if helping them is a priority. That goes double for Katrina, a disaster caused by the government's conscious decision to eliminate the $50 million pittance needed to improve New Orleans' levees.
"Tragically, our generosity feeds into the mindset of the sinister ideologues who argue that government shouldn't help people--the very mindset that caused the levee break that turned Katrina into a holocaust and led to official unresponsiveness. And it is already setting the stage for the next avoidable disaster.
"It's time to 'starve the beast': private charities used by the government to justify the abdication of its duties to its citizens."
And please forgive me, but I totally agree.
The problem is, if all those generous people who donated to relief efforts didn't do so, all the displaced people from the Gulf coast who have lost everything would probably be even more screwed than they already are. And these people need services now. The government has (finally) gotten its shit together and has been running rescue operations and pumping water out of New Orleans. But thousands of evacuees are being fed and housed by the Red Cross with donated money.
If Americans do someday get fed up with donating to nonprofits to do the work they have already paid the government to do via taxes, it would still take years (and maybe a few administrations) for our government to react, pick up the slack, and start using its resources to serve its own people without depending so heavily on private nonprofits.
I'm not suggesting that the government provides all services better than private nonprofits do--far from it. Local organizations that run after-school programs for youth, community development agencies, environmental conservation groups, all kinds of advocates for various issues, legal aid, arts organizations--please keep giving to these. Local nonprofit organizations that provide focused services to specific populations generally do much better work than a government agency ever could.
And nonprofits may be best suited to manage successful long-term recovery for displaced Gulf coast people, with things like helping them find new jobs and new places to live, deal with medical problems, and start to cope with the trauma they've suffered. Organizations doing that kind of work do need donations. But we have a very big and very rich government that is best positioned to do the big immediate relief stuff. It's time for the government to take responsibility and stop shifting this work onto nonprofits.
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