Category: Effective Compassion

Blog author: jspalink
Monday, February 6, 2006
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“Stop sending us your used clothes”
“Why 30 grams of fat is good for the poor”
“Look closely and you’ll see the Virgin Mary in this tortilla”

Acton is wrapping up a three-month project that had print advertisements running in several publications: WORLD, Crisis and the Michigan Catholic. The idea is to get people thinking about the economic consequences of trade policies and the power of entrepreneurial creativity. We’ve received a lot of feedback on this project, most of which was highly positive — with a few critical zingers. (Thanks to those of you who allowed us to use your names in the comments.) If you haven’t had a chance to see the ads, please visit the special Web page we built around this campaign for more information. We’d like to get your insights. Please email us at home [at] acton.org

I fully agree with your underlying point/message. I liked the “used clothes” ad very much. But… As a non-Catholic, I am uncomfortable with the tone of your “Virgin Mary” ad (though it might play well in media markets with a large proportion of Catholics). The “30g of fat” ad also sends mixed messages — while I agree that the appearance of McDonalds is a sign of a degree of stability, protection of private property & investment, and openness to foreign direct investment and other commerce (all very good), I don’t think that American fast food is much of a blessing to the world, least of all the underdeveloped world. Freer markets and protecting the lives/property of agriculturalists would certainly help feed and enrich these people better than new McDonalds branches in major cities would (these countries are far too heavily urbanized as a result of welfarism and statism).
~ Steve Daskal

I think your ads are tremendous. As you know, I’m sure, the provision of food aid to Africa also is detrimental to the local food production market, in the same way as the sending of used clothing. Thank you for these!
~ Philip Sawyer

Great ads. They communicate a difficult concept in a respectful manner. It makes me want to know more about Acton. Keep up the good work.
~ Name withheld

Thank you for the ads. I especially identified the one titled “Stop Sending Your Used Clothes.” As a Kenyan I witnessed how the used clothes market wiped out all the three textile industries that were located in my city, Thika. Even though the used clothes were cheaper and allowed poor people to afford more clothing, it increased poverty in the area because as each industry closed down, unemployment went up impacting many families. Many of these textile industries had hired a lot of women workers. This meant that when these women lost their jobs they could no longer support their families. Many of these women were forced to either depend on men or turn to prostitution. The city began to witness an increase in the AIDS epidemic. There is a high correlation between AIDS and poverty. Poverty does not only strip off people of their dignity but it also makes it difficult for people to make good moral choices. AIDS will only be fully! eradicated when poverty, particularly among the most vulnerable,(women and children) is eradicated.
~ Name withheld

You are doing good work. You are exactly correct with the ad message. I hope they are well heard.
~ Larry Spears

As a student of both moral philosophy and economics, I have been greatly encouraged to see your ads. They are professional, research based, and just the type of thing to make a liberal’s jaw drop. They challenge some fundamental assumptions made by liberals that are completely false. After years studying under a very liberal faculty, I rejoice every time I see a relevant, timely message encouraging free market ideals. The beautifully designed posters are much more effective than some of the lame and unprofessional “research” I have seen from other organizations. Thank you!
~ Name withheld

Quite honestly, I think they are disgraceful, sinful, anti-Catholic and an abomination if one knows anything about charity and economics at all. But I suspect you really don’t care what people think.
~ Name withheld

I think this is a long overdue and an excellent way to start educating Catholics about vital essentials of economics! Keep up the good work!
~ Name withheld

I was reminded recently that Jesus repeatedly underscored the high value of seemingly very small things. The signficant results of small mustard seeds and lost coins made his parable points well but, as a mom, the story of one lost sheep made me quickly leap to the incalculable value of one lost person. On a planet of billions, many of whom live and die with scarcely any notice, Jesus says God notices … and cares. And He calls us to care.

Acton’s 2005 Samaritan Award Winner Profiles (PDF), now available online, demonstrate that large or small, effective compassion greatly values even one lost or needy person. As helpful as “best practices” from such charity programs can be, each evidences more important best principles.

Principles transcend practices, because practices are simply activities, albeit some times ones linked to impressive results. But could they be as effective in Memphis as they are in Seattle as they are in tiny Seminole, Oklahoma? That is why Acton’s Samaritan Award entry survey is based on Marvin Olasky’s 7 Principles of Effective Compassion. The manner in which an effective charity may encourage reconnecting a homeless person to family and community may look very different among programs in those three cities — quite different in demographics and culture. But any homeless program in any of those cities should operationalize this “affiliation” principle.

Dr. Olasky asks: “Does the program work through families, neighbors, and religious or community organizations, or does it supersede them?” For example, studies show that many homeless alcoholics have families, but they do not want to be with them. When homeless shelters provide food, clothing, and housing without asking hard questions, aren’t they subsidizing disaffiliation and enabling addiction? Instead of giving aid directly to homeless men, why not work on reuniting them with brothers, sisters, parents, wives, or children?

The 2005 Samaritan Award Winners represent a wide variety of social services and budgets. Some programs serve a large number of ‘lost sheep’ and some serve only a few. Yet each has demonstrated a sharp understanding and commitment to effective compassion principles. An extensive report of each may also be found at Acton’s online Samaritan Guide.

We commend them to you.

John H. Armstrong tackles the question, “How Should Government Deal with Poverty?”

He writes, “A regular argument made, at least from some evangelical political voices from the political left, is to cite numerous Old Testament texts about poverty and then suggest that one of the central concerns of a just government is to solve the problems associated with poverty.”

He cuts to the heart of such fallacious reasoning, recognizing “No one who has an ounce of compassion disagrees that Christians should care about poverty and its associated social ills. The issue here is not ‘Should we care about poverty and the problems related to it?’ Rather, the question is, ‘What is the best way to respond to poverty?'”

Armstong narrates what the “profound” influence of Ronald Reagan on his point of view, and concludes: “The solutions to poverty are to be found in the free enterprise system and the sooner we stop bashing business and wealth making enterprises the better will be our overall response to poverty in America.”

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, January 19, 2006
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Wait for government help?

A couple of weeks ago, I noted the amazing “just do it” outpouring of compassion in response to the wildfires in the Central Plains. My small home town in Oklahoma was among those areas burned or seriously damaged by the fires.

Since Nov. 1, more than 363,000 acres, 220 structures and four deaths have been attributed to these wildfires. Much of the destruction has occured on Indian trust lands within such areas as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek and Seminole tribal jurisdictions, as well as more densely populated areas like Oklahoma City and Edmond, Okla. As of Jan. 14, there were more than 1,000 fires and in excess of 411,000 acres burned.

But counter to the culture, many of the people affected don’t consider “government help” as the first response. Nor should they. According to one report, Oklahoma officials said it took FEMA 12 days to approve the state’s request for comprehensive disaster assistance to combat wildfires.

Of course Oklahomans are grateful for the useful government help they do get, especially for those emergency firefighters. But much of the relief work could be simply categorized as neighbors and church folks helping each other. An article from the United Methodist News Service quotes my mother’s pastor in Seminole: “Most of the work that’s done here is the community working together … We had already started doing that when the fires came.” They’re already starting to rebuild homes lost in the fire.

“The community really depends on one another and uses the churches as a hinge point for relief efforts,” said Rev. Wayne Loftin, pastor of Davis United Methodist Church.

When the need goes beyond what neighbors and community can provide, then the next level of assistance in this case has been the conference-based United Methodist Committee on Relief. The efforts of multiple churches in multiple denominations contribute, too.

Don Oxford from the Davis church said, “We didn’t do anything heroic. We just do whatever we need to do.”

Would that we could all expand our own responses to the daily needs of neighbors around us, never waiting for international, national or even local agencies to show up. Dig in and get started. So many people are willing to help and in a way that helps people rebuild their lives. And this work greatly enriches personal relationships, quickly blurring the lines between helped and helper.

A Stanford expert on philanthropy argues that tax-deductible American charity is actually a government subsidy and that philanthropy is not ‘redistributive’ enough. Acton’s Karen Woods points out (obvious to most) that helping the needy is not the exclusive domain of the state. “The real problem with government ‘charity’ is that government takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the problem of poverty,” Woods writes.

Read the complete commentary here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, January 6, 2006
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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the closing of a federal housing loophole. The full article is accessible only to subscribers, so I’ll summarize. College students for a number of years have been taking advantage of Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) rules to live in “projects” while they go to school. Such housing is, obviously, supposed to be for the needy, but decidedly un-needy students have been benefiting. The Des Moines Register originally investigated the story (described here) and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa initiated the legislation to close the loophole. One student living at the expense of taxpayers was the son of the Univeristy of Iowa’s football coach, who earns $2 million per year.

So kudos to Harkin for addressing the issue. But the deeper and more intransigent problem is that massive government programs to help the needy will always be vulnerable to abuse. By necessity they must be subject to complicated and cumbersome bureaucratic rules, which cannot be adapted by administrators on the ground level making reasonable judgments. The existence of federal dorms for middle and upper class collegians over the last decade is only the latest example of the absurdity invited when the principle of subsidiarity is ignored.

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, January 5, 2006
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With a gracious spirit, let’s say that [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR:e173273:]Section 317[/url] of [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR::]Senate Tax Relief Act of 2005[/url] was penned with the intent of fostering honest accountability in the charity world. And, furthermore, let’s graciously allow that the legislation was designed to send the message that the Internal Revenue Service is vigilantly watching over the donation of tax-deductible clothing and household goods.

A [url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/29/AR2005122901503.html]recent article[/url] in the Washington Post justifiably underscored the importance of providing goods to charities that actually have value. Too much of what is given to charities today winds up in the local dump.

But Congress was not thinking clearly when it included a “Limitation of Deduction for Charitable Contributions of Clothing and Household Items” in Section 317. This measure requires the Secretary of the Treasury to annually create a list that places ‘market values’ on all household goods or items that would potentially be donated to a charitable organization. For a contribution in excess of $250, the donor would be required to secure a receipt from the charity that provided an itemized list “of number of items contributed, an indication of the condition of each item, a description of the type of item contributed, and a copy of the Secretary’s valuation list or an instruction on how to obtain such list.”

If the donated item is not in a “good used condition or better,” the charity would then need to value the contribution at 20 percent of the market value as deemed by the Secretary’s list. Or no value at all if the charity said it was worthless to the organization.

The [url=http://www.cpjustice.org/cprf]Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom[/url] argues that Section 317 generates serious operations and accounting burdens for rescue missions and small nonprofit organizations. That is a polite response.

For more than two years now, the IRS has been telling Congress — and the Senate Finance Committee in particular — that it doesn’t have the resources to get its charity oversight work done. Now the IRS wants to get into the clothing and household goods valuation business?

Maybe the Beltway crowd has missed the private sector solution to this issue — one that you can simply order onlilne. The [url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0970323077/qid=1136406966/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5327901-0168046?n=507846&s=books&v=glance]2005 It’s Deductible Workbook[/url] is now significantly discounted, but even last week, you could get a copy online for $14.95. Called the “Blue Book for Donated Items,” this private sector product is fully compliant with IRS code.

So, first of all, we should all agree that the IRS doesn’t need to “reinvent the in-kind donation pricing wheel.”

What’s more, we need to ask why the responsibility for finding the value (whatever the source) of donated in-kind goods is put on the receiver of the goods instead of the giver.

Section 317 has the potential to create a classic “unintended consequences” scenario. It may result in the government spending millions of tax dollars to generate information that already exists in the private sector, which by the way, is based on market values. Then the agency that receives the donation has to go through the red tape of providing an itemized list, value, and condition report for each item. That should go a long way toward further burdening and possibly eliminating scores of smaller charities, thrift shops, and rescue missions — groups that are already stretched by the basic tasks of receiving, sorting, and selling donated goods.

Is this all by design? Officials in Washington have been quoted as saying that there are too many small charities in this country. That means, to their way of thinking, that these charities are too difficult to regulate. If the true intent of charity regulation reform is greater accountability for all, let’s find a better way. Section 317 is neither the effective nor efficient way to accomplish this objective.

I’ve written about the narrower problem of generational conflict as it relates to social security policy, here and here.

From a perspective that encompasses the broader, related cultural, economic, and moral issues, Eric Cohen and Leon Kass write in Commentary the most thoughtful and thought-provoking piece I’ve read on the matter of intergenerational responsibility and end-of-life care.

Credit to Stanley Kurtz at The Corner.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
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Sometimes one man’s trash is just trash. “Most people have no clue what’s involved with taking a garbage bag of stuff and getting it to the person who needs it,” said Lindy Garnette, executive director for SERVE Inc., a Manassas-based nonprofit that operates a 60-bed homeless shelter and food bank.

According to this story, “Eager for Treasure, Not Trash: Charities Sort Through Piles of Donated Goods, Some of Which They Can’t Use,” by Michael Alison Chandler in The Washington Post, these are some of the items donated this holiday season: 20-year-old golf clubs, old Victoria’s Secret Valentine’s Day gifts, six-year-old computers, beta VCRs, broken toys, puzzles without all the pieces and unmatched shoes.

“Many of these gifts end up in the trash, or they are given to yet another charity — one with more storage space — such as the Salvation Army, which has its own dump trucks and daily pickups scheduled to haul away the unsellable stuff from its stores.

After all the sorting, cleaning, storing and transporting, gifts sometimes end up being more trouble than they are worth for strapped nonprofits, which have limited staff and resources.”

For more on how to give effectively so that nonprofits can function efficiently, check out Acton’s Impact World Hunger campaign. A huge part of what we do here is connecting the good intentions of charity and compassion with thoughtful economic understanding.


Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
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More evidence surfaces of the necessity of using discretion when giving charitably. Not too many readers of this blog will be surprised that the United Nations is not the most efficient entity in the world. It seems that overhead gobbled up a third of the funds the U.N. raised for tsunami relief last year.

But private charities aren’t immune to problems. Fifty people have been indicted in a scandal at the Red Cross. Employees were directing Katrina-victim funds to “needy” friends and family.

Maybe there’s a lesson here about giving to smaller, less bureaucratic organizations. Definitely there’s proof that lack of personal integrity is a problem that extends beyond the world of for-profit business. And definitely there’s affirmation of the need to give wisely.