by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In every city around this country, private charities, some faith-based, some secular, are successfully helping the poor and disadvantaged. And they are doing so, by and large, without government involvement.
This is not a new phenomenon. For example, during the first part of the 20th century, when African Americans were generally excluded from government social-welfare programs, black lodges, such as the Prince Hall Masons, and other institutions established a wide-ranging, and highly successful, charitable network. They built orphanages and old-age homes, provided food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, and helped the unemployed find work. Black lodges also provided medical care, hiring physicians to provide services to members and their families. Known as “lodge-practice medicine,” the networks were so extensive that African Americans were more likely to have some form of health insurance than were whites during the early years of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, such private charitable networks were simultaneously squeezed by racism on the one side and the growing welfare state on the other. Today, they have largely faded away.
Advocates of the modern welfare state continually tell us that if we didn’t have TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), food stamps, housing vouchers, and a host of other redistributive programs, there would be no one to care for the poor or those in need. The reality is that Americans are an amazingly generous people, and more than willing to step up and help those who cannot help themselves. Since the War on Poverty began in 1965, private charitable giving has totaled more than $10.2 trillion (in 2014 dollars); roughly 29 percent, or $3 trillion, of this went to human services or public-society benefits. And this doesn’t count the hundreds of billions of hours that Americans spend volunteering to help others. Last year alone, 64.5 million Americans gave 7.9 billion hours of their time and effort in volunteer work.
Charitable giving amounts to far less, of course, than the $19 trillion that federal, state, and local governments have spent fighting poverty since 1965. But the evidence suggests that charitable giving would have been much higher in the absence of the welfare state. There are studies, some dating as far back as the 1870s, showing that private giving increases as government programs decrease, and conversely decreases as government programs grow more generous, leaving the overall amount of money spent (both public and private) relatively constant.