July 1, 1995 in City

Warm, Fuzzy Notion Is Pure Wishful Thinking

Julian Wolpert Special To The Washington Post
 
Tags:column

Arguing that giving more responsibility for social programs to the states and less to Congress and the president will not shred the safety net, Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., said recently: “For us to presume that they’re Scrooges and we’re Midases is wrong.”

Unfortunately, the data show clearly that Scrooge’s descendants are alive and well and in control of some parts of our nation.

And in other places, deep recession or long-term poverty requires help from outsiders that cannot be provided by local government or charities.<

A glance at the tables in the current Statistical Abstract is enough to show that three-person households on welfare in Texas and Alabama receive monthly payments equal to only one-seventh of those states’ per capita income. At the other extreme, welfare recipients in Minnesota get benefits 3 1/2 times greater than in Texas or Alabama - but still less than half the per capita income in their state.

In contrast, Texans, Alabamians, and Minnesotans receiving Social Security are all eligible for the same benefits because, as a federal program, Social Security doesn’t penalize anyone for where he happens to live.

None of this should come as a surprise: When Washington, D.C., folks speak disparagingly of people on welfare, why would there be any reason to think that local folks would think or act differently? At least programs originating in Washington treat everyone the same.

What about the ability of charities to make up the difference?

In saying that he favors greater dependency on local charities for safety net support, House Speaker Newt Gingrich expresses a noble sentiment but one that is not backed up by performance. The findings from “Patterns of Generosity in America,” a recent Twentieth Century Fund study, show how far-fetched it is to expect that charities can fill the gaps left by the less generous state and local governments.

Indeed, we found that where state and local governments are most generous to their neediest residents, charitable donations are highest; where government is relatively stingy, so are private donors.

Overall, donations to charities are a meager 2 percent of personal income, despite the fact that contributions are tax-deductible. “And contributions have remained at that level for two decades, whether the economy was in boom or recession. If the level of giving could be raised to 5 percent - an implausibly high figure - that would still fall far short of matching even the amount of money currently being proposed for cuts in federal social service programs.

Furthermore, charity organizations overwhelmingly are locally based in the strictest sense of the word: Most of the money they raise is spent on services and projects within the community itself.

With our communities increasingly becoming segregated by income level and most charities doing their work closest to home, little of what is raised crosses over community or ethnic lines except in cases of temporary disasters.

It also is true that contribution levels do not correlate with the affluence of a community or the depth of distress there. Some communities are, for whatever reasons, generous. They raise much more for the United Way, Jewish Federation and Catholic Charities for local services than do others. Cities in Ohio, for example, are twice as generous as cities in Texas in their contributions per employee to the United Way.

The typical beneficiaries of most are community churches and synagogues, YMCAs and related organizations, museums, public radio and television, universities and parochial schools. In short, donors tend to give to charities for services the donors themselves use, and not to sustain safety nets.

Those charitable agencies that do provide assistance to the economically needy and the handicapped rely overwhelmingly not on individual largess but on money from federal, state and local government.

Unquestionably, charities add to the variety and quality of life we enjoy in our communities. For this, they deserve our continued support. But we shouldn’t expect too much. Even the most generous communities lack the organization and resources needed for the much larger job of addressing serious inequality in income, education, health care, nutrition and other areas for which we rely on the federal government for assistance.

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