Friday, December 23, 2005

Lend a hand

We already knew the Athens Area Homeless Shelter was going to have close its doors, but today the Banner-Herald passed on the news that the Athens Homeless Day Service Shelter is going to have to close its doors. The AHDSS is facing a massive shortfall since it suddenly lost a $79,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The shelter is run by Advantage Behavorial Health Systems, and case manager Marshall Marrotte told the ABH it depended on the grant to cover its operational costs.

I bring this up not merely because of how unfortunate it is the organizations most dedicated to helping those in need are being forced to close their doors, but because I want to strongly question exactly how charitable we are as a community. It seems to me that following every disaster or crisis, we have our leaders stand up and talk about how America is the most charitable country on the planet. And, to be fair, in the immediate wake of things like the Asian tsunamis and Hurricane Katrina, the outpouring of support is overwhelming.

But does such stop-and-go spurts of giving hinder our ability to give to other organizations, like the ones facing hardships now, throughout the year? Are we as a community, and a nation, not as charitable as we like to think?

This morning, actually, I had read an article in the New York Times analyzing whether or not the government social programs enacted in the New Deal hurt charitable giving. This is the typical conservative argument - that providing services to the poor and sick are the responsibility of the private sector and of faith-based organizations, and that by having higher taxes to cover the costs of massive public programs like Social Security or welfare, more people tend to not give to charity because they feel they've already done their part by paying their taxes.

The article, however, finds this isn't the case. It says that 'charity provides an internal reward, the feeling of helping change the world,' and it quotes James Andreoni, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as saying 'donations are expressive ... I agree with your mission; I support your ideals.'

And recent research reveals this really isn't the case. The article goes on to talk about a study of churches in 1930s done by MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber showed that churches' charitable spending dropped 30 percent, but that equated to a reduction of three cents in church spending for every new dollar of government spending.

What is the real problem, I believe, is that the more a non-profit relies on public money, the less urgency it feels to seek private money. At IHN, we are near-desperate to receive donations and, despite our relative infancy, we have a very active fundraising committee (which I serve on) that puts on golf tournaments, sells pins and notecards, holds raffles, and solicts donations. We do actively seek government funding and grants when available, but we don't view those as long-term fixes to our financial situation. The way I see it, at least, is that such funding is 'seed money' which is designed to get the organization off the ground or back on its feet.

It's true I'd like to see increased money put toward things like Community Development Block Grants (I'm a huge fan of CDBG ... it's money given to individual communities for those communities to determine how best to spend it ... and it's a shame they've been trimmed the past few years and are in danger of being eliminated outright) because I think it's important for our government to be active in fighting poverty.

Conservatives have long decried socal spending by the government, and that's a perfectly legitimate ideological view to possess. The ABH ran a column by conservative commentator Tony Snow in which he took a few paragraphs to poke fun at the New Deal and Great Society for, in his eyes, not winning the war on poverty. I think that is a gross misinterpretation of those programs and the successes, and failures, they have experienced.

It's true poverty has not been eliminated, and it's true poverty has risen in the past five years in this country. But it's also true that programs like the New Deal and Great Society have done much to alleviate poverty in America. Much work does remain to help those in need and those who want to be helped, but the combination of government action and community compassion (through non-profits, charities and faith-based organizations) has dramatically reduced poverty in the past 75 years. And it's that combination which has helped to make such progress - the bureaucratic clumsiness of government can't do it alone and neither can the well-meaning, but overmatched charities and churches. It's this partnership which can help continue to reduce poverty and alleviate suffering.

We've all got ideological disagreements, and that's fine. I love a good debate as much as the next guy. But now, as we approach Christmas, I'd just ask you to take a look at the organizations which need your help, as well as some other ones which do good work here in Northeast Georgia, as well as around the globe.

Here are some places in the area ...

Athens Area Homeless Shelter

Athens Homeless Day Service Shelter

Athens Area Habitat for Humanity

Family Promise (IHN)

Food Bank of Northeast Georgia

... and outside of Northeast Georgia


Carolina for Kiberia

Practical Action (ITDG)

War Child

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season, and that the peace of God be with you this time of year.

1 comment:

hillary said...

This is the damn problem with being forced to rely on private giving.

I know it's awesome and worthwhile and everyone should do it, but the fact is: they don't. Not consistently enough.