I feel like in the past year or so I've heard an awful lot of people suggest that we should move away from any social welfare system and back towards a world in which charity is relied on to provide for those in need. It seems to be an idea that has enraptured a fair number of tea party advocates. And I think it's crap. Now don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the good and necessity of charity (and have written about it before), but charity and social welfare systems are two very very different things and serve two different (though admittedly overlapping) purposes. The idea that charity could replace or substitute for welfare systems is an extremely flaw view. This post will attempt to touch on some of the biggest flaws in the argument for charity replacing social welfare.
It probably makes sense to say something about the differences between charity and welfare. Primarily I see two major differences. First, welfare is about societal relationships, while charity is about the relationship between donor and recipient. That is, welfare is about the relationship of the many to the one (and vice versa). We, as a community, determine what is fair to expect the well-off to give to those who are not well off, and we, as a community, determine what is a fair limit for those who are not well off to receive and what they must do in order to receive it. By contrast, charity is about the giver determining what they will give, as an individual. Likewise, it is about individual receipt by the recipient; usually we don't see the same kinds of strings attached to charitable giving as we do with welfare (for example, most charitable giving doesn't require people to prove they're looking for work). There's community involvement with welfare, there's not with charity.
The second primary difference is the aim of each. Charity is an expression of generosity and love. It's what I as a Christian would comfortably identify as agape. A type of brotherly love for the other. Charity is less about the end result and more about the expression. Social welfare, on the other hand, is about creating a baseline standard of living for every member of society, which in turn creates a stable and productive society. Making sure everyone has a place to live, food to eat, potable water, basic health care, etc. ensures that people aren't dying in the street, helps keep down disease and revolt and all the other social ills that societies have dealt with throughout the ages. Welfare, in addition to being an individual good for the people who receive it, is a social good. In welfare, it isn't just the gesture that counts. It's the actual result and the stability that creates.
I also want to say, quickly, that understanding history can be a very useful tool for this discussion. To be sure, the modern incarnation of welfare is a relatively recent phenomenon. I'm no expert on the history, but it seems that the idea rolling "back" to a time without welfare is not an entirely unfounded idea. However, what is mistaken about the idea of rolling back is that societies without welfare also had more charity or that they accomplished the same social goals as societies with welfare. There isn't a trade off between welfare and charity, such that societies with welfare programs have less charity and vice versa. In fact, I think you'd see that societies with stability created through welfare programs are actually more charitable than those without. And there isn't a trade off in terms of results. Some people seem to suggest that if we got rid of welfare programs that charitable giving would step in and accomplish the same results. Understanding the history sheds a harsh light on that myth, and the reality shining through is that the two aren't interchangeable in terms of results either. (In fact, if charity had been enough in the first place, welfare programs wouldn't have started up!).
So now we come to the heart of the topic. Why isn't charity enough? Why can't charity provide the same social stability that welfare does? The answer is simple and the answer is sad: There is too great a need.
I am a legal aid attorney. Every day at work I help people who are at or below the poverty line with their legal problems. I have handled roughly 150 different clients every year for the past four years (from brief advice to full-on appellate representation). That number is before counting spouses and children (I would venture to guess that half of my clients have children). Over 4 years that is 600 different people at or below the poverty line that have come to me with poverty-induced legal problems. The experience is staggering. The federal poverty statistics are even more so.
We are a nation of have-nots.
To see why charity isn't enough, I want to focus on just one issue: housing. Of the 600 people I have worked with at least two-thirds receive some sort of welfare assistance for their housing. They get rental vouchers, or live in low-income housing built and paid for by the federal government, or participate in one of the dozens of other housing programs. Most commonly people who receive welfare assistance for housing are required to pay a third of their income towards their housing costs and the government pays for the rest. For an individual living at the poverty level, a third of their income would be roughly $300 a month. Most people in the country cannot find an apartment for that price. They need assistance in order to afford even the cheapest, most basic housing. Considering that most of my clients are well below the poverty line makes it even more clear how grave the situation would be without government assistance to pick up the rest of the cost of rent.
In order to address this problem we need to come up with a way to cover the rent shortage every month. Welfare systems do it through taxation and then spending the money on the rent for those in the welfare program. Tackling this problem from a charitable context is a stark contrast.
It's clear that, in order to make sure people don't become homeless, that we can somehow come up with the difference in rent, between what the person can afford and what rent actually costs. So let's say a studio apartment runs about $500/mo. The individual can come up with $300. That's just $200 more a month. Surely there are plenty of charities that could cover that. It's a pretty small sum. Of course, it's complicated further by the ongoing need. Rent isn't just a one-time need. Sure, a charitable person might be able to come up with $200 to help someone cover their rent. But how many times? Over the period of a year that would $2400. How many people can find an extra $2400 in their budget? Probably pretty few.
But maybe the advocate for charity-over-welfare would say, "we don't need 1 person to come up with $2400. We just need lots of people to come up with smaller charity. 12 people coming up with $200 would do the trick just as well." And that is exactly right. But it misses the crux of the problem: we aren't dealing with just one needy individual.
If two-thirds of my 600 clients are on housing assistance, that means 400 different monthly housing payments are made on behalf of just the people I have assisted. If that's $200/month per person, that means our direct charitable giving needs to come up with $80,000 every month, and nearly a million dollars every year. If everyone were able to kick in a one-time charitable contribution of $200, it would still take 4,800 people to meet the housing needs of my clients. And that's just for my clients in two small areas of just two states! Do you know 4,800 people who could come up with an extra $200 every year? I sure don't.
I don't mean for this to get bogged down in specific numbers, but it's important to recognize the practical situation, because that explains clearly how far away charity is from covering the needs that welfare addresses. For example, a quick glance at numbers put together by the Government Printing Office show that as a nation we'll pay an estimated $35,610,000,000 in housing costs for 2010. That's 35.6 billion dollars. Total U.S. charitable giving reached a record high in 2007 at $314 billion. That's all charitable giving, including religious, international, health care related (think cancer awareness), alumni donations to colleges, etc. That includes individual and corporate giving.
What these numbers mean is that, in the most charitable time in history, we would need to increase our giving by more than 10% if we were going to cover the housing costs currently provided by welfare. Think practically... how many people do you know that could increase their charitable giving by 10%? And even if they could, how many actually would? More shocking, that covers just housing. The total spent by the government on "income" issues (check out the numbers link from above) is more than our country's total charitable giving. That means, realistically, to maintain services where they are today we would have to double our charitable giving.
The point to all of this, of course, is that people who suggest charity can replace welfare, generally speaking, do not have a great handle on just how big the need is in this country. Quite simply, the number of people living in poverty is enormous.
Moreover, the consequences of not having welfare are, well, frightening. Take a look through history at societies without any welfare. They were not stable societies. Without providing health care coverage disease runs rampant and people literally die in the streets. Without providing housing people go homeless, live under bridges and in doorways and literally die in the streets. Without providing food support people go hungry and, once again, literally die in the streets. I know this all seems like hyperbole, but it's actually reality. There have been societies that relied on charity over welfare. Pre-revolution France is probably the best example. Charity breaks down. People are greedy. Those who have become disacquainted with the have-nots and cannot grasp the reality, cannot understand what level of charity would truly be needed. And without that understanding things fall apart.
I know that those who advocate for charity over welfare are probably chomping at the bit right now, suggesting that, in the presence of lowered tax burdens we could actually afford to give at the levels I've suggested are needed. That assumes people would be willing to give more, which I don't think is entirely true. But even more importantly, it overlooks some critical elements to welfare that are generally absent in charitable giving. In order to effectively create social stability you need these elements, and charity alone does not provide them.
First among these is that charitable giving leaves gaps in coverage in a way that social welfare does not. Setting aside discretionary questions that are present in charity but absent in welfare ("Who should I give the money to?" is a question unique to charity. Welfare asks instead "does this person qualify for the money?" and, if they do, no discretion is exercised.), the primary gap I'm thinking about is that of social networking.
To put it bluntly, most people who need welfare don't have a support network. Most people not-on-welfare are probably pretty connected to their family and friends. If they ever had a critical need they could rely on that support network for assistance. If they were going to come up short on funds, they could borrow it from that network. If they got flooded out of their home by freak storms, they would have friends they could stay with or family to help them move to a new place. But those on welfare usually don't have these same support networks.
The reason that's so relevant is because these support networks often steer charitable giving (and charitable work). When my family has a need, our support networks step up and help us out. That's a type of charity. But I don't get it because my need is somehow greater or more urgent than others in society. I just get it because of my interconnections with other people. For those without those connections life is significantly tougher. Many people on welfare lack the same support network that enables the rest of us to thrive. They don't have much in the way of family or friends who can help them out in a jam. And that often leads to worse jams. If you don't have health insurance your kid is more likely to be sick, for longer periods of time. If you don't have someone who can watch your sick kid for a night so that you can make it to your work shift, it's going to be a lot tougher to get to work and hold down that job. The problems all compound without that network.
As I said previously, those networks often funnel charitable giving. People give to causes they are connected to. People who know someone with a disease are more likely to give the charities that help fight that disease. People who go to a church are more likely to give to missionaries affiliated with that church. People who went to a college are more likely to give to that college. Etc.
For those without a support network, their issues of need are often overlooked by those who are giving charitably. Quite simply, unless they're already connected to a network, they're unlikely to receive charity. Even if charitable giving rose significantly, these gaps in coverage would present a significant problem.
The other major advantage that welfare has over charity is that it accounts for the administration necessary for taking in funds and funneling them to the right places. Cut it any way you want, with so many needed people needing so much from so many others, it take a large administrative presence just to ensure that funds get to where they're going. If we cut our taxes by the amount spent on housing benefits and said "let's make sure people get that money through charity" you'd have to create a brand new administration to accomplish that charitable goal. You need a way of collecting the funds. You need a way of distributing the funds. You need a way of identifying the people who need the funds. You need a way of making sure they spend the funds on the stuff they should be spent on. You need people to make priorities about the distribution of funds. And lots more besides, including fraud prevention (there's a lot more fraud in charity than in welfare).
All of these functions are things that are part of the welfare system. There are probably areas where efficiency could be improved, sure, but this administration is necessary to accomplish the kind of coverage that our society needs. Any charity that wants to accomplish the same results would necessarily become a type of administration-heavy welfare system of its own.
Between the huge gaps in coverage and the reality of administrative costs, there's simply no practical way that increased charity alone could accomplish the results achieved through social welfare systems. Even if we lowered taxes, so that people could give more to charity, we wouldn't be as effective at providing the necessary services and stability that we accomplish through welfare. Money alone does not solve the problem. The same amount of money distributed through private charitable efforts vs. distributed through welfare systems is going to have vastly different results. When it comes to social stability, the welfare system is the one to rely on for actually accomplishing our goals.
So, where does that leave us? It's clear that welfare can accomplish things that charity cannot. In order to provide the kind of social stability that we all need, there needs to be a functioning administrative system and it needs to cover as many gaps as possible. It's also true that the level of need far exceeds what charity can handle. It takes a very significant naivete to suggest that we can accomplish through charity what we currently achieve through welfare systems. Finally, it's important to understand that charity and welfare serve two related-but-distinct purposes. They are mutually reinforcing, not competitive. Welfare helps lay down a baseline for survival and stability that enables people to thrive, which in turn enables charity, which can be used to pull people up, beyond baseline survival. Charity is an expression of love and generosity. Welfare is a social good. They work hand-in-hand, and both are extremely necessary.
The idea that we can replace welfare with charity is neither a charitable idea, nor one which truly considers the welfare of others.
The dry fig of his heart
Under scarab and bone
Starts back to its beating