Money, food, clothes, shelter, healthcare — all examples of things we increasingly expect charities to give to those in need.
Total American gifts to charity have skyrocketed from less than $150 billion in 1980 to more than $350 billion in 2014. This has occurred as governments have defunded programs that provide people with basic needs. Ronald Reagan, for example, applauded charities that picked up the slack of government programs that he eagerly cut during the 1980s.
Since Reagan’s time, the dominant narrative has been that churches, foodbanks and other non-profit organizations are more responsible for social well-being than governments. Governments have been happy to facilitate that idea: in the United Kingdom in 2010, the government even asked citizens to donate more to charity to offset cuts in public spending. Similarly, the U.S. government provides significant tax breaks to those who donate to charity.
Still, governments — not charities — should be responsible for the well-being of their citizens. That is not a new idea. In the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt greatly expanded social programs to support a population affected by significant economic collapse. Even in times of economic stability, presidents like Lyndon Johnson upheld the government’s responsibility to ensure social well-being through initiatives like the War on Poverty.
It is true that charities have done great and necessary work, and they will likely always have some role in communities. Still, they are not ideally positioned to ensure the well-being of society on the level that is needed. The Atlantic names three reasons for that: Firstly, most charities operate on a local scale, so they simply are not large enough to offer services to all who need them.
Secondly, charities are allowed to be discriminatory in whom they help, meaning that any group deemed “worthy” could be unfairly privileged. Finally, the largest donors to charity get the largest say in a charity’s mission. Therefore, important causes are often overlooked. Beyond that, the very concept that poor people should have to depend on the spontaneous benefit of the wealthy to survive is a problematic notion. In a country of plenty like the U.S., people should have ensured access to basic needs regardless of their socioeconomic profile.
Fortunately, there is an institution that makes up for these shortcomings: government. Governments are inherently omnipresent, so their services can be extended to all. Furthermore, in principle, a government “of, by and for the people” should serve everyone equally and reliably all while considering the concerns of all stakeholders.
Governments also have the ability to perform structural changes that charities simply cannot enact. Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara remarked, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Indeed, charities are band-aid solutions to the structural problems that governments are responsible for fixing.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Having access to basic human needs is necessary to enjoy those rights, so the government should ensure access to them for all. And, frankly, what good is a government that refuses to help the very people it serves?
Sam Smith is a junior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.