Welfare: the Myths of Charity
Philanthropic groups are heavily dependent on the government and already overburdened
If Congress and the White House both want to cut spending for social programs, who will house the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick and help the poor? With many states and cities facing their own budget crunches, House Speaker Newt Gingrich says private charities should pick up much of the burden. "I believe in a social safety net, but I think that it's better done by churches and by synagogues and by volunteers," Gingrich told an interviewer.
In fact, it is highly doubtful that charities could pick up all or even most of the slack from the $76 billion to $450 billion in spending cuts now being proposed by Democrats and Republicans in Washington. The federal government, after all, began weaving a social safety net because states and cities, not to mention churches, synagogues and volunteers, could not cope with the Great Depression, urbanization, increased mobility, runaway health care costs, a swelling population and a declining sense of community in America.
Since the 1960s, private charities have become one of government's chief service providers. They are favored for their efficiency, and tax money has enabled them to serve more people. Nationally, charities now get about 30 percent of their funding from government, and many programs get more than half their money from government. Some, such as nursing homes and orphanages, can rely on government for at least 75 percent of their funding.
A look at the Singer Transitional Residence, a long-term shelter, and other social programs affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago shows why charities are not prepared to take on a sizable new population of people in need.
The Chicago federation, the nation's 67th-largest charity, supports cradle-to-grave programs--from therapy for babies of crack-addicted mothers to subsidized housing for the elderly. Last year, it received $23 million in government funds and raised an additional $27 million to pay for social-spending programs by its affiliated charities. The Singer shelter pays 65 percent of its total costs--from food to night staff--with public moneys. (President Clinton last month proposed eliminating the shelter's key federal grant.) "It doesn't take much rocket science to figure out that if the resources at our disposal are cut, we will serve fewer people," says the federation's Joel Carp.
The belief that charities can take over from government is rooted in two myths:
MYTH 1: CHARITIES PROVIDE A PRIVATE SOCIAL SAFETY NET Federal and state transportation grants paid for the $36,000, dark-blue van, one of 19 belonging to the Council for Jewish Elderly, that picks up 80-year-old Beatrice Glaberson every morning and takes her to an adult day-care center in Rogers Park. The program provides Glaberson with intellectual stimulation, which has helped her recover from a stroke. "It gives you something to do," she says, "instead of sitting at home, watching television, playing solitaire and eating candy."
Glaberson's own day-care bill is largely paid by Medicaid. Chicago's 469-bed Mount Sinai Hospital, which is affiliated with the Jewish Federation, receives less than 1 percent of its funds from private donors, and 80 percent of its patients are on public health insurance.