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Charity Can't Be the Safety Net
Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Charity Can't Be the Safety Net
by Matthew Miller
Among the many useful antidotes to blather in public life bequeathed by Sept. 11 is the exposure of the hoax that the most effective way to render aid is always charity, not government. Now it turns out that charity involves bureaucracy and politics too.

The gyrations at the Red Cross are Exhibit A. First, that organization staged the most confidence-busting executive change in memory when it tossed out Chief Executive Bernadine Healy during a teary news conference at which neither the board doing the firing nor the woman getting the boot could veil their contempt for each other.

Then came the revelation that the Red Cross, in a bait and switch that apparently has been its standard operating procedure after high-profile disasters, planned to hold back a big chunk of the record sums raised since Sept. 11 for "future needs" unrelated to the victims. (The Red Cross has now done an about-face.) Yet the Red Cross' woes are only the beginning. Already, the patchwork of funds set up to cope with the tragedy are awash in questions. Should victims who have gotten help from charities see their help from other charities and government reduced by that amount? This seems only fair, but how should this be tracked and coordinated? Are some victims trying to double-and even triple-dip? And why should the victims of Sept. 11 get so much more than the victims of, say, the Oklahoma City bombing, not to mention countless other smaller but still awful tragedies?

Conservative commentators say this all proves that modern bureaucratic culture has ruined charity by making it as complicated and rule-bound as government. Can't we just give cash to the people who need it, they cry.

The truth is that once you move past the level of soup kitchens and start dealing with mass tragedies and resources, these issues are perfectly predictable--and show instead the bankruptcy of the conservative strategy to discredit government and install charity in its place. This notion has been a staple of the right's rhetoric for years, from Newt Gingrich's call to replace welfare spending with individually earmarked charity tax credits to George W. Bush's plan to have faith-based charities play a bigger role in helping the poor.

Now let's be clear: Spiritual organizations do great work in helping people turn around their lives, and government should help these groups do more. Yet the larger conservative project served by this rhetoric was to de-legitimize (and de-fund) government while protecting against charges that conservatives lacked compassion.

It was a great gig while it lasted. When Gingrich asked, "Who would you rather give your money to, Mother Teresa or Donna Shalala?" there wasn't any doubt about who'd win that bake-off.

Once you got past the sound bite, however, the logic was always dubious. For one thing, charity remains tiny compared with the size of modern misfortune. A billion or so dollars has been raised by charity since the attacks. That's fabulous. Yet President Bush has already called for $40 billion to deal with the fallout, and more is on the way. So charity, while well-meaning, only tinkers at the margin.

What's more, private compassion is fickle and selective, as all the charities not involved in Sept. 11 recovery efforts are learning. Donations to these groups have dried up in the wake of the attacks.

What we need are public institutions imbued with what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls "a properly educated compassion," which offsets our inevitable blind spots as individuals while honoring our deepest values. When we design such institutions well, it is not some alien force that is doing our bidding, but ourselves. In a democracy, government--like charity--is us. Only better.

Meanwhile, if calls to privatize the United States' safety net have vanished with the twin towers, then some goodwill already be coming from this evil.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times


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