Acton Commentary

Breathing Life (and Funds) into Civil Society


It has become almost a cliché to state the simple fact that decades of massive welfare state spending on social programs has had the effect, unintended or not, of suffocating civil society solutions in meeting the needs of the poor. Throughout these many decades, ever increasing levels of government spending redistributed funds from local communities to unaccountable federal programs administered by distant people. The costs of this redistributive social welfare scheme have imposed an enormous welfare state premium on civil society’s efforts to minister to the poor and the needy. The interests of the poor, and with them the service of the common good, demand that this system be reformed.

Perhaps some help is on the way. Late last week, the United States Senate Finance Committee voted to create new tax incentives for charitable donations, reinvigorating the best portion of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. The measure would allow non-itemizing taxpayers to write off a portion of their charitable contributions and permit charitable gifts to be tax free from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA’s). This measure has the potential to free up billions of dollars for charitable institutions. If that prediction seems overly exuberant, recall that Americans gave over $1 billion to charities in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack.

In a statement, Mr. Bush offered: “The committee action brings us one step closer to creating incentives for Americans to donate more to charities, many of which are facing tough financial times.” He is exactly right. More importantly, the implications underlying this shift in tax and social policy offers new hope in creating, funding, and building effective civil society alternatives to failed welfare state programs.

For decades welfare state politicians have treated as enshrined dogma the moral assertion that the state is the only legitimate provider of assistance for the poor and needy. Moreover, they have argued that private charities are sometimes unaccountable and discriminatory in whom they choose to serve. Anyone who has had any experience at all in dealing with government bureaucracies finds the first criticism—of unaccountability—laughable. And the concern that private charities “discriminate” in providing service is outrageous to the point of exasperation. With their evangelical mission to care for “the least of the brethren,” faith-based groups are usually the only groups willing and able to reach the most needy in our communities. Deliberately confusing discretion with discrimination is a subtle form of demagoguery, attempting to change the subject from serving the poor to political posturing.

Welfare state politicos are reluctant to incentivize voluntary funding solutions emanating from civil society because they are interested in using the tragedy of poverty in our midst to score political points in the name of “compassion.” Significant political constituencies and special interests have grown up in the weed patch watered by welfare state dollars. The strategic “compassion” employed by such politicians and their clients seems more calculated to preserve essential constituencies in their political machines, rather than concentrating on innovative solutions to meeting the needs of actual persons.

Furthermore, many of these allegedly “morally neutral” social welfare programs embody an aggressively secularist worldview—a worldview hostile to those moral norms central to combating material and spiritual poverty. This is important, because the character of poverty in America is in many ways different from poverty in developing nations. The poor in the United States often suffer from more than just a lack of material resources. Rather, many of them suffer from a lack of spiritual, moral, familial, and personal resources necessary to fully participate in the life of the community. The horrific effects of those things often leading to poverty—such as drug addiction; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; broken families; and mental illness, to name only a few, require more than a generic, “morally neutral” program to meet their needs. They need ties that bind to the local community, education, and local mentors willing to undertake the sacrifice that love for another entails. This is not “blaming the victim” as some would allege, but a simple realization that the condition of poverty encompasses more than simply a lack of material goods.

The policies and the politics of the welfare state have the effect of reducing people in need to mere clients of one-size fits all programs. Incentivizing charitable giving, via tax deductions for non-itemizers and from IRAs, will increase the number, type, and quality of services available for those in need, leading to greater choice for individuals. It is also sound policy, offering an important first step in creating a balance of economic power that favors civil society solutions over impersonal and unaccountable programs in caring for the poor.