Public vs. Private Charity
Why is it that, in such a rich nation, there are still so many people going to bed hungry, living on the street without any hope for a good home or living wage, and dying from simple diseases and simple medical problems? Something is wrong. The problems of the poor are not getting better, they are getting worse. Shouldn’t our government be doing more or is there a better way?
Our government has shouldered the lion’s share of caring for the poor, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve made any significant progress because more and more people are being added to the ranks of the poor. That begs the question, is our government the best provider for the poor or is there someone better? That’s the question.
Ironically, the government prides itself as being the most efficient and effective provider for the poor. In fact, the government is neither an efficient nor an effective provider for the poor. Without a doubt, the government can spend more money faster than anyone else. However, government cannot know the specific needs of all the poor. It can only generalize, spend the money, and hope for the best. Consequently, money is regularly overspent on some and underspent on others. Some of the poor receive much more support than they need while others suffer with less than what they need.
Obviously, government programs can help. However, those same programs can also make the problems of the poor worse. For example, programs that have made it easier for the poor to buy homes, have generally encouraged the poor to buy in special, low income, areas. While it’s a good thing that some of the poor are now able to own their own home, it has isolated them even more from society and that keeps them dependent on government aid. Additionally, when the government taxes society to help the poor, two things happen; first, society begins to see the care of the poor as the responsibility of government (and not themselves), and secondly, the poor begin to see the aid as a right.
Those who believe that the poor are the responsibility of government tend to reduce their contributions to charitable organizations. When questioned why, they might respond, “Well, I’m already helping the poor through my taxes, why should I help the poor with my own money?” On the other end of the equation, some of the poor who are receiving the aid know that their source of aid will never go away regardless of what they do or don’t do. To them, the government is just some amorphous being that will always take care of them.
Because there is no incentive for government workers to identify the specific needs of those who are receiving the aid, and because government assistance tends to perpetuate itself, the government is the wrong provider for the poor. If so, then who is a better provider for the poor?
An important identifier of the proper provider for the poor is the ability to know the individual needs of the poor they are helping. The provider needs to know the individual situations and know what’s best for them. That knowledge can only come through a much smaller organization, an organization closer to the receiver of the aid.
That is essentially the guidance we get from the principle of subsidiarity. At the core of that principle is the belief that government exists for the good of the individual, and what individuals are able to do, government should not do. That means that, for example, national defense needs to be the responsibility of the federal government, while sewers, parks, and housing developments needs to be the responsibility of city government. With respect to charity, individual citizens can know the needs of poor in their area better than the government can. Further, the poor are less likely to consider the aid as a right when they get it directly from the source (individuals). That means that aid distributed at the citizen level is more effective and more efficient.
On a moral level, Christians recognize that they need to help those in need. Christians understand that they have the duty to give to the poor out of their excess and a moral responsibility to give to the poor out of their own need. When the government provides for the poor, Christians are deprived of some of the opportunity to help the poor. It’s true enough that the poor will always be with us and there will always be opportunities for charity. But the question is, who is the best provider for the poor?
On a social level, both Liberals and Conservatives want to help the poor. The primary difference between these two groups is that Liberals want the government to use general taxes to help the poor, while Conservatives want individuals (or groups of individuals) to help the poor through private money. It’s the difference between, using generalized programs that, on the average, help most of the poor while morphing the aid into a right, and using a more personalized program that, while it can’t help all of the poor, requires the giver to know the individual situations of the poor and what they really need.
So, who can best help the poor? While every system we can devise will have flaws, the best providers for the poor are individual citizens using private money because they can know the specific needs of the poor and thus are more likely to get the proper aid to those who need it.