Americans, regardless of political viewpoint, have long had a significant preference for giving aid to others through private charities than through government agencies. The reason commonly given is Americans want to make sure their money goes to aid causes they agree with and not support causes they somehow find unworthy. A typical criticism of this approach is that private charity is limited in its scope, allowing a giver’s bias to get in the way of urgent human need. Recently, the New York Times published the results of a study of New York City philanthropy which may cast doubt whether private charities help those in need at all. What struck me about the article is not that surface message, but how it offers an ironic confirmation of Catholic Social Teaching argued by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio: how development does help bring about a more humane environment composed of more complete human beings.
If the Times article is correct, the bulk of giving in the New York Metropolitan Area goes to the maintenance and growth of institutions which help sustain and grow the people of those economic classes who donate the money in the first place. It is a virtuous cycle for them. The affluent of New York donate to those institutions which help their descendants maintain their quality of life and perhaps rise further in society. Private charity here is not aid of one’s neighbor in need, but an investment by the people of an economic class to secure their own future as developed, well-rounded human beings. One should ask if this study may be representative of the majority of private charity giving across the United States.
The irony is that critics of Catholic Social Teaching on development often question whether charity for the poor works to resolve poverty. Too often, the criticism is accompanied by a demand for a quick return on investment: a reduction of poverty achieved over a short-term period with a near-perfect success rate. However, this study may show that people in higher economic classes do not exercise any impatience when they invest in themselves. The unintentional confirmation of Catholic Social Teaching offered by this study is that investment in human development must be substantial and sustained over time. If development cannot be treated as a one-off rush job for the wealthiest among us, it most certainly is not the case for the poorest among us who may need more resources and help to become the human beings they ought to be.
Thanks for this post Ramon. It’s really important to know that most charitable giving does not go to the most needy. Rather, we tend to fund organizations that benefit the upper and middle classes (e.g., elite higher education and the arts) and churches. But I would disagree with the article’s implication that charity cannot make a real difference. If we could increase the percentage of income that goes to charity from the average 2-3% to a more substantial 8-10% and direct the majority of that money to organizations focusing on poverty reduction, that would matter. CST is right to ask individuals and governments to carefully consider how to give well.
Thank you for this post. I agree with the proposition that “investment in human development must be substantial and sustained over time,” for it must be the case that human development is a monumental endeavor and that our investment in such development should be carefully developed and implemented to reflect the magnitude of this endeavor.
However, this is not to say that we cannot make better use of private, spontaneous giving that, as you correctly note, often only serves to maintain the status of the elite in our society. In the Times article, the author indicates that current charitable inclinations are “further aroused by tax breaks.” Part of the problem is that the IRS and the legal community use the term “charity” as a term of art. As such, what is “charitable” for purposes of tax deductions means something very different from what Christians mean by “charitable.”
For instance, a “charitable organization” for the purposes of tax exemption is defined in the following way:
“A tax exempt organization that (1) is organized and operated exclusively for religious, scientific, literary, educational, athletic, public-safety, or community-service purposes, (2) does not distribute earnings for the benefit of private individuals, and (3) does not participate in any way in political candidate campaigns, or engage in substantial lobbying.” -Note: This is Black’s Law Dictionary’s encapsulation of rather messy and cumbersome definition found in IRC (26 USCA) § 501(c)(3).”
Contributions to these organizations are tax-deductible, regardless of whether the particular organization is helping the poor or perpetuating the status-quo. Given the IRS’s broad definition of what a charitable organization is for tax-exemption and for contributions that are tax deductible, it is no surprise that to offset their tax burden, the wealthy in society contribute to “charities” that only perpetuate their station in society.
Therefore, we might want to think about statutorily redefining what we mean by “charity” in legal parlance. We might be able to do this by establishing certain additional criteria within the 501(c)(3) classification that an organization must also meet to receive donations that the contributor may exempt from taxation. We might also rethink the 501(c)(3) tax-exemption entirely. In any event, there are alternative ways that our laws could encourage directing private, spontaneous charitable giving in a more sufficiently charitable direction. At the very least, it is worth thinking about.