February 9, 2001
by Michael Tanner
Before he became president, George W. Bush used to say, "Not every good idea should be a federal government program." It is advice he should have followed before he announced his new plan to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to private and religious charities over the next 10 years.
No one denies that private charities, especially faith-based ones, can transform lives and help lift people out of poverty and despair. Indeed, private charities are more effective than government welfare programs in fulfilling these roles. It seems natural, therefore, for President Bush to want to encourage these groups. But in mixing government and charity, he risks undermining the things that have made private charity effective.
Government standards and regulations intended to ensure accountability and quality care are attached to government grants and contracts. In the end, what these rules ensure is nothing more than waste and major headaches for faith-based charities. Charities will have to prove that they are not using government funds for proselytizing and other exclusively religious activities.
That means government regulators will be snooping through their books, checking for compliance. The potential for government meddling is great. But even if the regulation is not abused, it will require a redirection of scarce resources away from charitable activities and toward administrative functions. Officials of these charities may end up spending more time reading the Federal Register than the Bible.
Besides, why should faith-based charities eschew proselytizing and strictly religious functions? There is a reason for the "faith" in "faith-based" charities. These organizations believe that helping people requires more than food or a bed. It requires addressing deeper spiritual needs. It is about God. Yet, in the end, Bush's proposal may transform private charities from institutions that change people's lives to providers of servicesa government program in a clerical collar. Call it "compassionate big government conservatism."
There is a more profound threat to the identity and mission of these charities. If the history of welfare proves anything, it is that government money is as addictive as any narcotic. Ironically, therefore, given that many private charities are dedicated to fighting welfare dependency, government funding may quickly become a source of dependency for the charities themselves. Lobbying for, securing, and retaining that funding can become the organization's top priority.
Many of our largest charities, such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and the Jewish Federations, already receive more money from the government than from private donations. These groups also run large professional lobbying machines in Washington. In many ways they have become another special interest at the trough of federal largess. Surely, we do not want to put charities on the dole.
Furthermore, government funding is antithetical to the nature of charity. After all, the essence of private charity is its voluntarynot coercednature. Individuals help one another through love of neighbor. Tax money is based on coercion. There is neither compassion nor love behind a grant of money forcibly taken from taxpayers who may have no desire to support the charity in question.
There is no reason to take these risks. Private charity is thriving in America. We are the most generous nation on earth. Every year, Americans contribute more than $150 billion to charity. In addition, more than half of all American adults perform volunteer work. That time and effort is worth more than another $200 billion. And that does not include the countless dollars and time given to family members, neighbors and others outside the formal charity system. A few extra dollars from Washington will add little to this amazing success story.
Mr. President, private charity is a good idea. But please don't make a federal program out of it.
Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.