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The War on Private Charity

Robert Knight | Author | Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The War on Private Charity

When it comes to serving the needy, there are two basic approaches. The first, inspired by Jesus Himself and required in the Old Testament, is sacrificial giving of oneself. This has been the cornerstone of American charity since the nation's founding, and it remains the most effective way to assist the poor.

Another, diametrically opposite approach is socialism, in which income is forcibly seized and then redistributed to groups and individuals favored by government officials. Socialism is rooted in the formula from Karl Marx—"from each according to his ability to each according to his needs." That is a fine arrangement when voluntary, such as in families, churches, and private charities. However, when it is imposed by force—and socialism is always accompanied by force since it violates human nature—it is soft tyranny masquerading as charity.

Since the 1930s, with the advent of the New Deal, the federal government, along with local and state governments, has taken on more and more functions that previously were handled by families, churches, and private charities.

Social Security, the largest government income transfer program, was originally aimed at assisting intact families. Now, it is an ever-growing tax on employees and employers that has driven a wedge between the generations. How? Because in centuries past, parents had more children partly to fulfill the biblical mandate to "be fruitful and multiply," but also as a way to insure that someone would provide for them in their old age.

Social Security removed the advantage of having children, since it guarantees income based solely on age (and previous employment). Someone who has no children gets the same amount as someone who had 10 children who grew up to pay into the system, thus supporting the childless retiree. Children are very expensive, as any parent can tell you. Social Security makes having them less advantageous, economically. Of course, many people will attest that Social Security has allowed millions of older Americans to live in at least minimally comfortable circumstances. But the other social effects are not often voiced or acknowledged.

The same can be said about Medicare, Medicaid, and many other enormous federal programs. The advantages are obvious, but the downsides are not so obvious. To pay for all this, the average American family's tax burden has risen from a mere 2 percent of income in 1948 to nearly 30 percent, when all taxes are accounted for. This has forced many mothers into the workplace who would, all things being equal, rather spend the time raising their children. Consequently, this has created a huge market for paid childcare, with the government subsidizing it via tax credits and in some cases through direct payments. Thus, families are paying taxes to create a system that offers incentives for them to spend less time with their own children. While this may delight feminists, who want all women to pursue careers instead of homemaking, it makes it harder for families that opt for a different model.

$5.7 Billion for "Paid" Volunteers

On April 21, 2009, President Obama signed the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" bill, tripling the size of the federal government's paid "volunteer" programs, including AmeriCorps. The billion over the next 10 years, and putting 250,000 paid "volunteers" on the government payroll.

Generosity has been a hallmark of American character. It's a product of the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage, and it's the polar opposite of cold, contractual transfers that characterize socialism. In fact, socialism is so ugly in practice that it has to destroy its competitor, private charity, hence the proposed assault on charitable tax deductions.

Some of the largest secular groups in America, such as the AARP, enthusiastically supported the Kennedy Act boondoggle. They stand to gain paid "volunteers" at the expense of smaller competitors, such as churches.

Faith-based charities are technically eligible, but will get squeezed out by "nondiscrimination" language. In practice, this means that a Catholic-run homeless shelter would have to employ atheists or Buddhists. The Salvation Army, perhaps the most effective charity, requires volunteers—not its clients—to adhere to Christian beliefs. Because of that, the Army will be shut out from employing any of the government's paid "volunteers."

Why would anyone think that government involvement would improve volunteerism? On the Senate floor, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) warned:

…Our history shows us when Government gets involved, it tends to take something that is working and make it not work nearly as well. Civil society works because it is everything Government is not. It is small, it is personal, it is responsive, it is accountable. Civil society must be protected from any effort to make it more like Government. This bill centralizes control of important functions of our civil society.

Mandatory Civil Service

The original bill called for creating a commission to study mandatory civilian service, but that was yanked amid public outcry. However, it has re-emerged in H.R. 1444, the "Congressional Commission on Civil Service Act," sponsored by Washington Rep. Jim McDermott (D).

This free-standing bill, which directs the proposed commission to "enhance our Nation and the global community," reaches to kid-level, providing "the means to develop awareness of national service and volunteer opportunities at a young age by creating, expanding and promoting service options for primary and secondary school students."

If you think this will be limited to public schools, you don't know the mindset driving this bus.

And if you're a sacrificial parent homeschooling or sending your children to a religious school so that they won't be engulfed by the public school MTV culture that has led 11-year-olds to "sex text" nude pictures to each other, you'll be out of luck. Your kid will need to go with the flow.

The McDermott bill requires the commission to study "[w]hether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed to … overcome civic challenges by bringing together people from diverse economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds." Or, as riot icon Rodney King might say, "Can't we all be forced to get along?"

On the face of it, mandatory civilian service violates the 13th Amendment's prohibition on involuntary servitude. During a national crisis, such as World War II, married men with children were given the choice: military service or work in a defense plant. The Constitution's Article 1, Section 8, allows Congress to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy." It's one thing to allow for conscientious objection to a military draft; it's another to draft civilians to serve in politicians' pet projects absent an emergency.

The McDermott bill also charges the commission with examining "the need" for a federal four-year college to train "future public sector leaders." Think of it, an entire university churning out graduates with the same mentality as ACORN, which is to say that they will view the nation as entirely secular and public, except the parts that are stubbornly and temporarily private.

President Obama has also proposed cutting tax deductions for private charity for the wealthiest givers. Harvard economics Prof. Martin Feldstein warned in a Washington Post column that this could severely hurt nonprofits:

President Obama's proposal to limit the tax deductibility of charitable contributions would effectively transfer more than $7 billion a year from the nation's charitable institutions to the federal government. ... In effect, the change would be a tax on the charities, reducing their receipts by a dollar for every dollar of extra revenue the government collects. …With the endowments of charitable institutions sharply reduced by the fall in stock prices, this loss of gifts would make an already bad situation worse.                                                                     

The proposal, which would take effect in 2011, would trim the amount that people could deduct. It would apply to married couples with incomes of more than $250,000 and single people with incomes greater than $200,000.

The administration's plan would limit the amount that high-income individuals could deduct to 28 percent of their gifts, down from 35 percent, even though their incomes would still be taxed at a higher marginal rate. This raises the cost per dollar of giving from 65 cents to 72 cents, an increase of 10.8 percent that can be expected to reduce the total giving of these donors by about 10 percent.

Taken together, the massive increase in government aid to paid "volunteers" and the reduced incentive for charitable giving is a double-barreled shotgun aimed at traditional giving in the private sector.

The biggest loser will be faith-based charities, since the law expanding AmeriCorps and other programs will exclude any charity that "discriminates" on the basis of religious belief. In effect, the government is bribing volunteers to cease helping churches and faith-based charities by creating a paid competitor.

The immediate answer might seem to be to say, "Well, don't take any government money then." That's sound advice. But by funding largely secular groups, the government skews the market against faith-based charities, which is exactly what socialists have wanted to do for years. Americans need to stand by the faith-based charities whose own government is creating competition for volunteers. People need to consider giving more and to volunteer their time.

They also need to let their elected representatives know that these assaults on charities cannot be allowed to stand. No wrongful policy is irreversible when enough citizens are aroused to take action. 

Reprinted by permission from Fighting for America's Soul: How Sweeping Change Threatens Our Nation and What We Must Do, by Robert H. Knight. © Copyright 2009 Coral Ridge Ministries.

Robert Knight is a senior writer for Coral Ridge Ministries.