David Boaz’s post on bizarre and utterly preposterous claims that the federal government’s “social safety net” has been shrinking brought to my mind James Madison’s position that “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”
“The Father of the Constitution” wasn’t being cold-hearted when he took this position during a 1794 debate in the House of Representatives over federal aid to refugees. Rather, he was merely recognizing that “the government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects.” Charity just wasn’t one of the specified objects. Of course, future politicians decided otherwise.
Today, most young Americans grow up in federally subsidized schools offering federally subsidized meals. They are inculcated to view the federal government as a benevolent caregiver that exists to provide Americans with housing, food, health care, and even income (to name just a few). Madison’s unfortunately quaint notion that the federal government isn’t supposed to be engaged in “charitable” activities would probably leave them dumbfounded.
I single out children because this week a private charity that I am involved with, the Purple Feet Foundation, is giving select inner-city sixth graders an opportunity to take hold of their futures now. Instead of promoting dependency, these kids will spend the week engaged in educational activities that will hopefully inspire them to utilize their individual talents to succeed in life. The Foundation does not seek, nor will it accept, taxpayer money. I believe this sets a good example for these kids.
Those of us who desire the limited federal government that Madison envisioned are often accused of being uncaring about those who are in need. In fact, the opposite is the truth: we recognize that government programs are wasteful, ineffective, and counterproductive to the aims that they are trying to achieve. As a Cato essay on federal welfare explains, private charity is superior to government programs for several reasons:
Private charities are able to individualize their approaches to the circumstances of poor people. By contrast, government programs are usually designed in a one-size-fits-all manner that treats all recipients alike. Most government programs rely on the simple provision of cash or services without any attempt to differentiate between the needs of recipients.
The eligibility requirements for government welfare programs are arbitrary and cannot be changed to fit individual circumstances. Consequently, some people in genuine need do not receive assistance, while benefits often go to people who do not really need them. Surveys of people with low incomes generally indicate a higher level of satisfaction with private charities than with government welfare agencies.
Private charities also have a better record of actually delivering aid to recipients because they do not have as much administrative overhead, inefficiency, and waste as government programs. A lot of the money spent on federal and state social welfare programs never reaches recipients because it is consumed by fraud and bureaucracy…
Another advantage of private charity is that aid is much more likely to be targeted to short-term emergency assistance, not long-term dependency. Private charity provides a safety net, not a way of life. Moreover, private charities may demand that the poor change their behavior in exchange for assistance, such as stopping drug abuse, looking for a job, or avoiding pregnancy. Private charities are more likely than government programs to offer counseling and one-on-one follow-up, rather than simply providing a check.