Charity Should Begin at Home — And Not in Washington

Written by Terry Schilling

In a recent Liberty Minute, “Charity Begins at Home,” Helen Krieble condemned the attitude of excessive reliance on the government for welfare:

Have you ever heard the old saying that charity begins at home? Now we seem to believe charity begins with the government. Whenever there is a tragedy of any kind, people look to government to rebuild homes, bail out failing businesses, and replace people’s lost possessions.

But when we look through the lens of liberty, we realize government can only provide for some people by taking from others. Over time, we have transferred much of our charitable work from communities, churches, and organizations to the government. Do we really want Congress to spend some people’s money on charity for others? We can only truly be charitable when we learn to take care of each other and stop looking to government to take care of us.

This attitude of unhealthy attachment to government aid can be witnessed to some extent in the angry reactions to the news that President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 includes a 10-year, $274 billion cut to federal entitlement programs.

Abandoning all government welfare spending and leaving these services completely to private charities would be a rash move — but no one is proposing that. There is something to be said, however, for decreasing the amount of money the government takes from one group of people to give to another.

One reason such redistribution fails to work is that it decreases the amount of money that many citizens have and therefore limits or eliminates their ability to perform acts of charity. When taxpayers feel that they are already contributing enough through taxes, they give less to private charity — as evidenced by a recent study by the American Legislative Exchange Council which found a 1.16 percent decrease in charitable giving when taxes were increased by 1 percent. If the government decreased spending on welfare and transferred those savings to citizens in the form of reduced taxes, people would be better situated to make more charitable donations, and charities would be better situated to help those in need.

Additionally, there is the issue caused by the “crowding out effect.” This refers to a phenomenon which occurs when increased government spending drives down private sector spending. Numerous studies have examined the crowding out effect throughout history and how it has discouraged private activity. As one study published by the Journal of Public Economics shows, the crowding out effect was especially noticeable following the construction of the New Deal policies in the 1930s:

Churches in the U.S. were a crucial provider of social services through the early part of the twentieth century, but their role shrank dramatically with the expansion in government spending under the New Deal…our estimates suggest that benevolent church spending fell by 30% in response to the New Deal, and that government relief spending can explain virtually all of the decline in charitable church activity observed between 1933 and 1939.

As all these factors illustrate, although Big Government proponents may certainly have good intentions, government programs aren’t always the best answer to every problem. Sometimes, private citizens — and not far away bureaucrats — are best situated to serve their neighbors.

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