Myth that Private Charities Can Make Up for Cuts in Government Spending Is Bad Math

Photo courtesy of NYC.andre

Recent surveys suggest that about one in every five Americans attends religious services on the average weekend, worshipping in about 350,000 churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

In half of these houses of worship, there were fewer than 75 people on hand. The average number of worshippers was 186. They give an average of $14.67 a week to their congregation, or $763 a year. Much of that helps pay for salaries, mortgages, utilities and other overhead costs.

These statistics underscore how very difficult — “impossible” is the precise word — it would be for churches and other faith-based organizations to take over social service duties now paid for by the federal government. That’s what the Republican Party platform calls for. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, support the concept.

Indeed, just to cover the $169 billion in cuts to the food stamp program called for in the Republican House budget authored by Ryan, every church, synagogue, temple and mosque in America would need to come up with an extra $48,000.

If everyone made $22 million a year — as Romney did in 2010 — and was as generous as he is in giving to his church ($1.5 million in 2010) — you could make the numbers work.

But a congregation with the median number of worshippers, 75, would need to get $640 per year more from each of them, or 83 percent more than each member currently is giving.

Churches and faith-based charities already provide about $50 billion a year in services to the poor and needy. Not all of this is money from the faithful. Indeed, much of it comes from … wait for it … the federal government. Catholic Charities, for example, had $4.7 billion in revenue in 2010, of which 62 percent came from government sources.

Conservative theology holds that charity should be a personal decision, not a government function, and that when Jesus Christ said to help the poor, it was (so to speak) an individual mandate.

Rush Limbaugh paraphrased Chapter 13 of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians on his Sept. 11 show: “Charity is not donated at the point of a gun or threat of a prison cell, a la Obamacare! Charity is not conscripted. Charity is willingly given from the heart, or for the tax deduction. But you have no choice when it comes to taxes.”

Ryan, a Catholic who said he drew on his church’s social teachings when formulating his budget (and was admonished by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for that claim) was referring to the doctrine of ‘subsidiarity.”

Roughly that means that the human being comes first, and society should defer to the individual whenever possible. Pope Pius XI put it this way in 1931: “It is a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

But in criticizing Ryan’s budget, the U.S. bishops noted that at times — this being one of them — that “government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.”

Americans are generous people, topping the Charities Aid Foundation‘s “World Giving Index” in 2011. On the other hand, Americans gave away only 1.9 percent of their disposable income, down from 2.4 percent in the pre-recession year of 2005.

The Giving USA Foundation reports that in 2011, Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charity. Individuals accounted for 73 percent of that. Counting bequests from estates and family foundations, households account for 88 percent of all charitable giving. Corporate giving and grants from foundations account for most of the rest.

Studies have shown that charitable giving by conservatives is about 30 percent higher than that of liberals — in large part because conservatives are more likely to be churchgoers. But Americans also give a whole lot of money to causes that directly help the poor and needy.

Churches and faith-based groups got 32 percent of the $300 billion given away in 2011. The next-biggest percentage — 13 percent — went to educational institutions. Groups providing human services got 12 percent. Health and hospitals and international affairs got 8 percent each. Arts, culture and the humanities got 4 percent. Environmental and animal causes got 3 percent.

Of course there are fraudulent charities and organizations that don’t deserve to be charities — athletic booster clubs come to mind. But most charitable giving does public good, which is why it’s tax deductible. But to argue that private charity can pick up the nation’s obligation to the least among us is simply absurd.

Republished from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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