Charity from billionaires and corporations won't solve our country's deepest problems
- Private donors and charities have stepped up both in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the over the past few decades to help heal America's problems.
- But we've become over-reliant on these philanthropists and charities, which are unaccountable to voters and unable to fix the deepest issues in our country.
- That's why need government to step in and fix our education system, infrastructure, and more.
- Leo Hindery, Jr. is co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Never underestimate the enduring generosity of Americans in the face of a crisis.
Since COVID-19 struck, private philanthropists in the US have poured more than $182 million into pandemic response efforts. And in the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Americans have rushed to fund organizations dedicated to social justice, with corporations donating millions and citizens of all means opening up their own pocketbooks, all the while doing so during the most devastating economic downturn in a century.
We should be proud of our citizens' readiness to support important causes – a spirit of generosity that has grown even stronger in recent decades. From 1997 to 2017, giving by corporations, bequests and foundations grew 439%, from $23 billion to $123 billion adjusted for inflation. And during the same period real giving by households has increased by 140%, from $120 billion to $287 billion.
There is a risk, though, that in turning to philanthropy more and more to solve the biggest challenges of our time, government at all levels can atrophy – and in many cases it already has.
While charitable giving can help boost the fortunes of the country, we need our government to step up and take a bigger role if we're ever going to solve our biggest challenges.
Philanthropy is taking over where government should be
Consider the current education crisis, to take one example. As a society, it's clear that we lack confidence in the ability of lawmakers to enact policies that better support schoolteachers. So instead we increasingly rely on well-resourced individuals and corporations to step in and fund nonprofits like Donors Choose that help teachers buy the supplies and even some of the books they need.
But as charities like Donors Choose do more – and they are doing tireless, impactful work, to be clear – government is too often doing less, especially under the current administration.
Philanthropy, for all of its real potential to drive meaningful change, is not accountable to voters, who should be the ones dictating the agenda in Washington and state houses throughout the nation. Nor can we or should we trust philanthropists to understand the needs of Americans in every corner of the country. That's the job of government.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have continually kicked the can down the road. Congress should be enacting permanent solutions that would lessen the need for charities to fill so much of the void.
With respect to supporting teachers, one immediate solution would be to provide federal income tax relief to the nation's 3.7 million kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers under a refundable tax credit program.
America has a long and successful record of using the tax code to reward desirable social actions. Congress did this for VISTA and Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and it does so today for active-duty military personnel – it should be doing the same for teachers.
A declining role leads to eroding trust
Unfortunately, the lack of government action on education is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lawmakers ceding their responsibility in recent years. It's no surprise that only 17%of Americans trust the government in Washington to do what is right, and many think that dysfunction in government is making it harder to solve problems.
So it is that we need to reclaim the expectation that government can and must help solve, not hinder, the most pressing policy issues – and as we attempt to dig out of the greatest economic crisis in a century, now is the perfect time to do so.
"Make Government Work Again" should be a clarion call for Democrats in 2020. And in addition to federal tax relief for teachers, there are three actions that the government can immediately take to show Americans of all means, ages and backgrounds that it can do the job efficiently and effectively.
First, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt importuned in his effort to advance the country out of the throes of the Great Depression, we need to enact comprehensive labor-law reform and remove all barriers to labor organizing through the provisions of a new "Employee Free Choice Act."
As union membership rates continue to plummet, we cannot rely solely on nonprofits like Jobs with Justice to correct the power imbalance between workers and management.
Similarly, we cannot lean on groups like the Post Road Foundation to ensure that America's infrastructure is prepared for the 21st century economy. We desperately need a National Infrastructure Bank – an independent financial institution owned by the federal government and governed by an independent, nonpartisan board of infrastructure and public policy experts and labor leaders.
This bank would lead the charge to fix our ailing roads and bridges, lay down new rail systems, rehab our airports and help bring broadband to the whole of the country.
Finally, in order to ensure that retired workers and the elderly can live comfortably, we must fortify Social Security by enabling a federal retirement account for every American that is funded by a combination of voluntary savings and a modest federal match.
As it is, according to a 2015 report by the National Institute of Retirement Savings (NIRS), less than 40%of private-sector workers participate in a retirement plan through work and even those who do have an average balance of only $23,826.
The Charities Aid Foundation, which has been tracking statistics of global charitable giving for the past decade, identifies the United States as the most generous country in the world. (Interestingly, China is one of the least.) But philanthropy is not a sufficient strategy for addressing the enormous challenges before us. We need government to step up.
Leo Hindery, Jr. is co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Formerly the CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessor, Tele-Communications, Inc., he is currently an investor in media properties. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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