This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on December 15, 2013.
Whenever I visit Barton Creek Mall during Christmas, I am treated to the very best and the very worst of human nature. The worst rears its head in the parking lot; the best reveals itself in the Salvation Army bell ringers, Toys for Tots, and gift-wrapping fundraisers that line the assorted storefronts.
Unfortunately, this charitable vein faces a Grinch in form of big government.
The state’s entry into social welfare since the Great Society has not acted as a complement to private giving. Instead, it has crowded out and, at times, downright censored private acts of charity.
Christmas, for all its commercialism, still stands as one of the best examples of our country and our state’s commitment to charity. Recent studies estimate that Americans give nearly $54 billion to charity during the Christmas Season, around 18% of the $300 billion donated each year.
Texans are particularly generous, gifting nearly 5% of their yearly income—that’s a median contribution of $3,000 per household.
The push for government-sponsored “charity” has benefitted from this societal desire to serve the poor. The programs are wrapped in the language of charity and social justice.
Government intervention, however, is not the ally of charity—or the poor, for that matter. Even if we ignore the impact government has on economic mobility, we cannot escape the truth that government regularly favors the agendas of special interests over compassion. For instance, regulators seek to craft a comprehensive policy agenda, which may recognize the virtue of serving the poor, but only in the context of other competing values.
We see this happening across the country. In Florida, a city fined Corey Marion, owner of Happy Tails pet grooming, for posting a Toys-for-Tots banner in front of her store. Code enforcers claimed that the sign violated city ordinances on proper advertisement locations.
New York City went one step farther. There, officials banned all food donations to homeless shelters—possibly the most traditional example of private giving—because the city couldn’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content.
At the national level, the Department of Health and Human Services has threatened to impose a multi-million dollar fine on Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who help the elderly, because their religious faith does not allow them to provide employees with contraception.
The danger of government compassion going astray increases when helping the poor becomes politically inconvenient—in other words, when an act of charity conflicts with certain favored policy objectives. When this happens, both government programs and private charity aimed at helping the poor are viewed as an obstacle to be eliminated. Government programs become distorted and are then used to supplant the efforts of private entities, which are no longer treated as respected partners in caring for those in need.
Some may argue that government intervention is necessary because otherwise private charity would reflect the arbitrary biases of the individuals. However, as the examples show, regulators are just as vulnerable to this. What is left then is the argument that the government’s preferences for the poor are more enlightened than the public’s.
That type of pride hurts the poor. When the government supplants the efforts of individual charity, it entrenches dependence and leaves itself as the sole dispenser of relief. The poor lose the personalized care that’s characteristic of private giving as well as human bonds that tie them to the community.
Studies repeatedly show that personal attention and supportive relationships reduce poverty better than financial assistance alone. Government programs, however, deny the poor these essential relationships, leaving them with a handout but no human hand to help pull them out of poverty.
If Texans truly wish to celebrate the season of ‘good will towards men,’ we need to continue our tradition of small government and leave social welfare to individuals and charities capable of expressing human compassion.