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Derrick Z. Jackson

The gap between giving and government

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 21, 2011

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CHARITABLE GIVING is up in the United States. In normal times, that would be unqualified good news. The problem is that the increase in giving pales in comparison to what is being taken away in the current siege of budget cuts.

A new report by Giving USA found that individual Americans and corporations gave $291 billion to charity in 2010, a $10 billion increase from 2009. The report said Americans had to “dig deeper as their income and wealth have declined, but they have shown they are willing to do that.’’

Meanwhile, Washington has slashed social services budgets, and Republicans are talking about making more cuts.

It is not clear if Americans collectively plan to reconcile these two worlds. The 2010 midterm electorate bought us a far more conservative Congress, and the race for the White House in 2012 is already thick with boasts of who can cut taxes and social spending even more. The one thing that is for certain is that charitable giving is a puny substitute for government.

“It doesn’t make up for it, and that’s the sad news,’’ said Thomas Mesaros, the chair of the Giving Institute, which cosponsored the annual Giving USA study. “Churches are doing some significant things and grass roots organizations are trying to fill in the blanks in society where they can. . . But I don’t know if they can sustain it and make a dent in problems if our overall priorities remain on the [current] track.’’

Mesaros said that the nation’s tax policy, which favors the wealthy, prevents us from meeting social priorities. “Philanthropy can help,’’ he said, “but even if you double it, I don’t think it can make up for it.’’

People tend to give to causes in areas where they perceive the federal government is doing relatively little. Patrick Rooney, the executive director of the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University and another cosponsor of the report, said that outside of religious contributions, which account for 35 percent of all giving, Americans tend to give to education, fine arts, the environment, and international aid. In contrast, they don’t give as much to public health and human services, even though human services are usually among the first casualties of state and federal budget cuts.

Rooney is not sure how the nonprofit sector will change in response to that. But, like Mesaros, he is clear that philanthropy is unlikely to offset cuts that have already been made as well as those possibly coming down the line.

“The challenge is, we think we’re the most generous people in the world, and statistically that is true beyond any doubt,’’ Rooney said. “But one of the reasons we give is because in other countries, giving is not as high a priority because they have higher taxes and there may not be a perceived need for many services. The problem for us is that there are significant gaps between need and services. Sometimes people see that need and respond, but, dollar for dollar, we’re not going to be able to meet those needs.’’

It is time for Americans to give up the idea that public charity will somehow compensate for sweeping cuts in government aid. Even with increased giving, it’s like throwing pennies into a deepening well of problems.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.