Penn State illustrates the problem with charity as a social safety net

14 Nov 2011 05:58 pm
Posted by: Donna

Hey y’all, I’ve been away from blogging all week due to moving our office and residence early in the week and a conference in New Orleans Thursday through the weekend. We had a fabulous time in the Big Easy. We were there for a conference in a luxury hotel, attended by mostly financial investor types from all over the country. As such and as you can imagine, I got a good earful of supply side talking points. I was surprised by the number of people we met who mentioned our election on Tuesday when we said we were from Arizona. Dumping Pearce was national news, people. The other big topic was the Penn State child rape/cover-up scandal. Which got me to thinking about some primary social and ethical beliefs that are at the heart of the division between conservatives and progressives.

I’ve had many, many debates with conservatives over public assistance to low income people and government social programs in general. Many – maybe not most but many – conservatives seem to take it as an article of faith that the government has no business being involved in those things. They feel that private sector philanthropy is far better suited to provide help to people in need, and besides, it’s wrong to “coerce” people into funding public programs via taxation. These conservatives tend to have a definite preference for churches and faith-based initiatives, as expressed recently by Center for Arizona Policy President Cathi Herrod in the Republic.

More government bureaucracy isn’t the answer, said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian-based group.

“It’s time for church and community to step up and take care of these needs,” Herrod said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for the private sector and the faith-based sector.

Now, in the Land of False Equivalence inhabited by many op-ed writers, pundits, and (sadly) even some Democrats the obligatory rebuttal to this is, “But there are all these liberals who don’t believe in private charity and think the government should do EVERYTHING! Extremism on both sides! BOTH SIDES!!” Um, no, not really. There may be some liberals out there like that but I’ve never met any and they wouldn’t be taken seriously. Most of us think that there should be strong public institutions – infrastructure, health care, education, public safety, etc. – and a robust social safety net to keep people from falling through the cracks into destitution. Charities have a role in this, of course, but they should serve as an adjunct to the safety net to fill in the gaps, not as the entire safety net. I know tons of people who do grunt work in nonprofits and I’ll bet the vast majority of them agree with everything I just said. Also, many charities work closely with the government and receive government grants so it’s a far more complex situation than the “get the government out of helping the poor” crowd would have you believe.

Proponents of private charity replacing public programs point to inefficiencies and corruption in the government. They are certainly right that those problems exist and can detract from the ability of the public programs to do the best possible job meeting the needs of the most people who need help. But again, this is where the article of faith about private charity comes in. Just as the magic invisible hand of the free market supposedly creates just outcomes in business and commerce, so too does it lead inexorably to the same where philanthropy is concerned. If a charity is behaving badly, then it’s donors will find out and choose another charity. Penn State reveals the major flaw in that assumption, just as Enron and other outrageous corporate scandals revealed about unfettered free market capitalism. Jerry Sandusky committed several sexual assaults upon young boys on university property and many government officials failed to report him to the authorities over the years. But Sandusky got access to most of his victims through a charity, Second Mile, that he formed in the late 1970s.

And it turns out that major right wing philanthropists like the Koch brothers want little to no public oversight where their charitable activities are concerned, just like with their business activities. The Philanthropy Roundtable is a consortium of wealthy free market conservatives. They met recently at the Biltmore in Phoenix to award Charles G. Koch their prestigious William E. Simon Prize. The Roundtable is deeply invested in protecting the privacy and “independence” of donors and organizations.* This doesn’t mean their goal is to protect corrupt charities but it does lead me to question what, exactly, the Philanthropy Roundtable is willing to accept in terms of public accountability to ensure that charities aren’t committing fraud, or worse. The optimal condition envisioned by conservatives is the social safety net entirely under the purview of private institutions, ideally authoritarian religious ones which already enjoy an undeservedly high level of protection from public scrutiny and criticism.

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