Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Monday, December 14, 2009

Casting Stones and the Public Interest by Dr. Gary E. Roberts

One of the great political divides of our time is the intense, polarizing and often rancorous debate over the proper size, role and scope of government. This debate occurs between and within those on all sides of the political spectrum. Irrespective of one’s opinion on this issue, there are three principles that those of good faith and reasoned intellect can agree upon. First, an efficient and effective government is essential, but a healthy society requires a limit to the size and scope of government to protect civil liberties and rights, encourage reasonable self reliance and initiative, and reduce unhealthy dependence on governmental support. Second, business is the primary engine of wealth creation, but regulation on the size and scope of the private sector is necessary to resist the formation of destructive monopolies, protect public health and safety and promote consumer interests. Third, our national and global problems in such areas as poverty, global security, health care, the environment, education, and job creation are too large and complex for any one sector.

Effective governance requires a collaborative approach to the many intractable policy problems given limitations to knowledge, power, resources and the requisite moral and legal authority. Hence, both liberals and conservatives are placed in a reluctant but often overlooked position of agreement regarding the need for a vital and active nonprofit sector to provide services and forms of support that government and business are unable or unwilling to provide. From the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity to community museums and symphony orchestras, nonprofits address a range of human needs from the most basic to the sublime.

However, society’s overall level of support for the nonprofit sector fails to match the rhetoric from both sides of the political equation. New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof summarized data on this issue from a book by Matthew Bishop (“Philanthrocapitalism”) indicating that Americans give a paltry 1.67% of our GNP to charitable causes. According to a recent study by the Barna group, the median value donated to all nonprofits in 2007 per adult (churches, faith-based nonprofits and secular nonprofits) was $400 with an average of $1,308. Kristof cited additional data from a book by Arthur Brooks (“Who Really Cares”) indicating that conservatives, consistent to their core beliefs of smaller government, support nonprofits at higher levels than liberals (approximately 30%) more. However, given the small absolute dollar value base, this advantage is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Even among the 7% of population that identifies themselves as evangelical Christians, a pillar of the conservative movement, Barna found that only 24% tithe (give 10% of their income to charitable causes) with an overall average yearly giving level of $4,260. When all categories of Christians are included, the average drops precipitously to $1,426. The tithing figure for the entire population of the United States is even more depressing at 5%. A further parsing of the statistics by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University found that only 30% ($58 billion) of the total $252 billion of all charitable giving in 2005 was directed at helping the poor. Even among the $ 101.1 billion contributed to churches, about 80% of the giving is directed at “bricks and mortar” capital spending and internal budget support.

The cold reality is just as there is "market failure" in terms of the private sector there is corresponding "generosity failure" in regards to our support of nonprofit organizations. Hence, no group across the political spectrum can “cast stones” and externalize blame or responsibility for failing to support the nonprofit sector. Most Americans are blessed with a generous standard of living, and we choose how to spend the 70 percent of our income after the government removes its 30 percent share. The majority of Americans could live more simply and forgo what many of us now define as necessities which are in reality luxuries or desires, not legitimate needs. It is our free will choice to purchase larger houses, to live a hectic lifestyle that demands two or three cars, and to define the purchase of electronics and the latest computer equipment as essential. This lifestyle contributes to proliferate spending and excessive debt levels and to more than one form of bankruptcy.

The American dream of consumerism and materialism has contributed to a living nightmare for many and is contrary to the example of all the major faith traditions. One solution is to regain our compassion and develop a heartfelt empathy for the many unmet needs that contribute to endemic human suffering throughout our great country and the world. Please forgive me for pontificating, but even in the face of our current economic troubles the majority of Americans are still employed and the level of need is greater than ever. Take the path less well traveled whatever your political persuasion and become part of the solution to relieving human suffering and improving the quality of life for all citizens by increasing your giving to the worthy nonprofit of your choice.

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