The budget debate is a mess right now. U.S. politicians are facing quite the challenge as they make policy decisions to keep the country going. President Obama’s recent speech called all Americans to weigh into the debate and contact their federal representatives. Whatever side you are on, you have the right and ability to influence public policy through your representatives. If you haven’t yet, weigh in:
If you are on the conservative side, The Heritage Foundation provides a public petition to Congress.
And on the liberal/progressive side, MoveOn.org takes the opposing tack.
Whichever side you find yourself on, you have the opportunity to engage in government in the way a republic is designed. This also provides an opportunity to take a step back, and look at the bigger picture.
One of the central features of the debate in government spending is social services for the poor and the needy. A common argument against government funding for social services is that it is not the government’s responsibility to care for charity cases. However, it is less common to hear proposals that would meet the needs of the poor and the needy residing in the United States, without using government funding to do so. And yet, there are petitions encouraging U.S. policymakers to give money to other countries struggling with extreme poverty. If the United States cannot provide for the needs of its own poor, how can it conscionably appropriate funds to relieve poverty of other countries?
For the record, I agree that governments ideally would not use taxpayer money to the care of people in other countries, especially when there are such severe needs in our own country. With the proposed budget cuts, there will be low-income elderly, children in poverty and disabled who will be without heat this winter, facing exposure and increasing the likelihood of health complications. And government funded heating programs are just one area expecting to be cut.
At the same time, I recognize the Christian and humanist duty for all people of the world to care for the poor and the needy. Though, the people of the United States may feel the need to prioritize the people of their own communities and country first, the suffering of people in developing countries are equal in value and importance.
Enter limited resources. If the money is not coming from governments, who does it come from?
Peter Singer, in The Life You Can Save, promotes the idea that everyone, especially those blessed with the affluence of the developed world have a percentage of their income to share with those who are in more need than they. The Live You Can Save has been called the Billionaire’s pledge for people of all income groups.
Since I doubt we have any billionaire’s reading this blog, the pledge calculator conservatively estimates the percentage of income that a given household can comfortably donate to charitable and humanitarian organizations. Giving What We Can‘s donation calculator can tell you which percentage of the world is more wealthy than you. Chances are, if you are lower-middle to upper middle class, in a developed country, you are in the 20% percent of the world’s wealthiest and your earnings are 4 or more times those of the typical person.
So, the proposal:
Over a period of a few years, the United States government passes off the responsibility for social services to its citizens through incentivizing freewill donations to private sector non-profit organizations that take over service delivery. A suggestion for organizing and making needs known and accessible to potential donors is to use a website organization much like the one already in use by Global Giving.
The incentive from the government may be in the form of a tax credit or a tax deduction that is exempt from itemizing. A PSA and public education campaign similar to Let’s Move, maybe called Let’s Give, can be developed and promoted around the country.
While at the same time promoting citizen donations to social services, the proverbial Let’s Give campaign can encourage giving to international humanitarian efforts like those recommended by The Life You can Save, Giving What We Can and Global Giving. Singer asserts, “If everyone who can afford to contribute to reducing extreme poverty were to give a modest proportion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty, the problem could be solved. It wouldn’t take a huge sacrifice.” All it requires is the coordinated will, cooperation and some effective marketing.
We have the means available to meet the needs of all those who suffer from poverty, but it will require more people working together. Governments can play a role in the promotion of these values, but the domestic needs of their countries need to be their first priority. Sure, its redistribution of wealth, but this proposal addresses its biggest objection: voluntary giving. A good deal of resentment exists at the compulsory means of collecting funds for social services. If those who object so much were given the ability (and the incentive) to choose for themselves, perhaps we would see the Christian mandate to give of one’s wealth accomplished and relief for the poor and the suffering of the world.