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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:

"Government has been shirking its basic responsibilities since the '80s, when Ronald Reagan sold us his belief that the sick, poor and unlucky should no longer count on 'big government' to help them, but should rather live and die at the whim of contributors to private charities. The Katrina disaster, whose total damage estimate has risen from $100 to $125 billion, marks the culmination of Reagan's privatization of despair.

"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.

categories: Economics, Politics
posted by amy at 4:11 PM | #

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Tracked on December 31, 2006 8:24 PM


So are you saying that we should give to private organizations that are handling long-term recovery, but not the ones involved in immediate relief?

It's obvious the government dropped the ball with Katrina, but the fact of the matter is that right now, there are people suffering who need the immediate relief that the organizations -- not the government -- are providing. So should we just not give to these organizations in anticipation of the next time?

I see the point you're making, that donations are enabling the gov't to shirk its responsibilities, but in this particular case, I think it's too late to say, "By not giving, let's force the government to step in." While all those wheels-within-wheels are turning, the people on the ground will continue to suffer, not very impressed by the long-term political goals of the people who are refusing to donate.

I think it would be more helpful if in the aftermath of all of this, the public continues to donate to immediate and long-term relief organizations, but also demands an increased federal role in managing the recovery.

Along those lines, watch what you wish for: it might come true. The Bush Clinton Katrina Fund will take all that money and give it to the governors of the affected states to spend as they please. Is that where you want your money to go? That fund is likely to be the most politicized spending opportunity in our country's history, apart from the federal and state governments yearly budget, that is.

In other words, we need to demand more from our government, but we also should acknowledge (as you did, I think) that certain private organizations are just better at providing some services than the government ever could be.

Posted by: adm at September 14, 2005 6:31 PM

The great thing about our democracy is that an informed and critical citizenry elects a government that is a blend of the best components of competing philosophies of government. Today, all three branches of gov't are controlled by people who espouse a conservative philosophy of gov't. Without the liberal counterbalance which brought us the properity of the 90s, we get jobless economic recoveries that are shortlived and gaping gov't failures that leave thousands dead, both at home and abroad. Hopefully the nation will see Katrina and Iraq as the result of too much conservative gov't and elect more democrats to shift the balance back toward efficent and competent gov't policies and institutions.

Additonally, as ADM points out, perhaps the real problem with our gov't is corruption and misallocation of funds. Whether Democrat or Republican, constituents and lobbyists often reward their representatives based on how much money they bring home to their districts or allocate as corporate welfare. If we held our representatives to standards of ethical resource distribution, $231M dollars wouldn't be earmarked for constructing a bridge to an uninhabited island in Alaska, but would have gone to building levees that could withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Also, homeland security money would be distributed based on where a devastating terrorist attack would cause the most deaths and harm to our economy rather than Wyoming residents receiving the highest per capita antiterorism spending. Ultimately, it is the fact that we do not hold the gov't accountable for pork barrel spending and insist that federal money be distributed wisely that structured the destruction of a major US city. Perhaps that is an easy issue that democrats could use to make gains in the upcoming elections. Katrina will help people understand the importance of these reforms.

Posted by: Agent 0019 at September 14, 2005 6:56 PM


I think we can do two things at once. We can work to elect a government that funds public projects AND we can give our money to worthy cause.

Doesn't it seem a bit of gamble (and self-serving) to think that if we stop giving that the Bush administration will cry uncle and start funding worthy projects?

Also, I wonder about using this particular event to try out such a theory. I mean, this is a disaster that largely hurt one particular class (poor) and racial group (largely African Americans). If you think this is important idea worth testing why not wait for a disaster that impacts a group that do not have a history of discrimination and neglect by the federal government...

Posted by: William at September 14, 2005 10:36 PM

Uh, aren't you, like, studying public administration, and stuff? And so isn't it, like, kind of self-serving to ask for more money? Like, and stuff?

Posted by: Chriss Luva Luva at September 15, 2005 1:33 PM

Logan: No, no, and no. Did you even read the post?

Posted by: amy at September 15, 2005 1:34 PM

As much as I agree emotionally that the government should help its citizens, the realist in me sees that you can never depend on massive organizational behemoths for much, especially in terms of fast relief.

Posted by: Ted at September 15, 2005 2:56 PM

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