Posts tagged with: charity

In this week’s commentary I argue that the shape of the debate over the public health care option over the next four years should focus on the critical role played by mediating institutions of civil society: charities, churches, and voluntary organizations.

While President Obama’s health care speech last week was in part intended to dispel myths about the proposed health care reforms, it perpetuated some myths of its own. Not least of these is the idea that “non-profit” must mean “governmentally-administered,” or that we do not already have non-profit competitors for profit-driven corporations in the health insurance industry.

The president ended his speech by appealing to the compassion of the American public, and I support this wholeheartedly. But compassion is apparent most obviously in those deeds we undertake voluntarily and selflessly. It’s apparent in efforts like healthcare sharing ministries (HCSMs), which would face elimination under proposals for a federal health insurance mandate.

To be sure, there is deceit, half-truth telling, and rumormongering running rampant in this health care debate. But this goes not only for the opponents of the president’s plans but also for his supporters, an accusation popularized by Joe Wilson’s shameless outburst at the president.

From the transcript: AUDIENCE MEMBER: You lie! (Boos.).

For exhibit A, see this Facebook video of Robert Reich, who says that the public option’s “scale and authority” and “bargaining leverage” do not amount to a governmental subsidy: “The public plan would not be subsidized by the government or have the government set the rules for anyone.” Of course, as I note in the commentary, relying on governmental bureaucracy and authority is most certainly a form of subsidy.

And why wouldn’t groups other than the government have this “scale and authority” or “bargaining leverage” to negotiate lower prices? Because their power doesn’t ultimately lie in the threat of coercion and they can’t arbitrarily raise taxes to increase revenue. This is of course the same reason that so many corporations and businesses go rent seeking; the government’s coercive regulatory power is the ultimate trump card. A gun is a great bargaining tool.

For a more thorough fisking of exhibit B, check back with the PowerBlog later.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, September 3, 2009
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I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.

But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.

One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)

This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.

Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.

This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.

And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
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Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
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There’s more evidence that amidst the economic downturn people are becoming more careful and intentional about the kinds of charities they fund. We’ve seen that those likely to continue to flourish are those that have cultivated a “family-like” connection with their donors.

Often more local charities do well in this kind of climate. And, of course, the focus of the charity matters, too.

Robert J. Samuelson reports (HT: Theolog) that charitable giving was down $308 billion in 2008, and will likely be down even more this year. This will undoubtedly be due to less excess out of which to give, as well as potential changes to the tax code discouraging high levels of giving by the wealthy.

But Samuelson points out an exception to this trend. Feeding America, a group dedicated to providing resources for local food banks, has seen funding jump by 42%. Ross Fraser of Feeding America said, “Charities such as ours do well when times are hard. If you have to choose between giving to the ballet and feeding a hungry child, who’s going to win?” As Samuelson writes this dynamic “compounds the pressure on other nonprofits: colleges, hospitals, and environmental groups.”

Givers can be quite savvy, giving to the areas they perceive to be the most pressing. That’s why giving patterns can change quickly and respond to broader economic and social trends. With unemployment up and foreclosures on the rise, it makes good sense that food banks and other similar aid groups would have a competitive advantage relative to other kinds of non-profits.

Joan Lewis, EWTN’s Rome bureau chief, covered Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience address on Wednesday, July 8 , during which the pontiff publicly commented on his landmark social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” the day after it was officially released by the Vatican. Below is a summary of Benedict’s address to visitors in Rome, including Lewis’s own translation.

Yesterday, the Vatican released Pope Benedict’s third encyclical, “Caritas in veritate,” along with an official summary of the 144-page document that has six chapters and a conclusion. In addition, there was a very worthwhile two-hour press conference with summaries of the document’s salient points, as well as a Q&A session between reporters and Cardinals Martino and Cordes, Archbishop Crepaldi and Prof. Stefano Zampagni.

But surely the best summary of Pope Benedict’s just-released encyclical is the one he himself gave at today’s general audience, held in the Paul VI Hall and highlighting the moral criteria that must underpin economic choices.

In only 1,300 words (the encyclical has 30,466), the Pope explained the document’s contents and his intention in writing it. He began by explaining that Caritas in veritate was inspired by a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where “the Apostle speaks of acting according to the truth in love: ‘Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ’.” Thus, said Benedict, “charity in truth is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. For this reason, the entire social doctrine of the Church revolves around the principle ‘Caritas in veritate’. Only with charity, illuminated by reason and by faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess more human and humanizing values.”

(more…)

I had occasion to ask a leader in a denominational global relief agency today whether he had seen any decline in North American interest in addressing international poverty, given the recent economic downturn. He said that he had among some of the major foundations and donors, who were being inundated with more local requests for funds (food banks, and so on). But he also said that among most mid-level and smaller givers, they were matching if not exceeding previous patterns of giving.

When I asked him to elaborate about why he thought this might be, he said that in times of challenge and crisis, those of us in the first “third” of the economic world are able to often gain better insight into just how advantaged we are. What if you were faced with a debilitating illness or unemployment in a country that doesn’t have the resources available in the United States? It’s a truism that economic instability affects those with the least amount of financial cushion.

This explanation dovetails nicely with what has turned up in the research of Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow. In an interview with CT editor David Neff about his new book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Wuthnow says in part about the possible outcomes of the economic crisis,

It’s very likely that some churches are going to be saying that being involved on the other side of the world is a nice extra, but we can’t afford it right now. We have to focus on the needs at home. Hopefully that won’t be the only response, because when the world economy goes into a slump, people at the poorest end of the spectrum are usually the ones who suffer most, and therefore the giving and relief efforts are needed all the more.

Certainly some churches will “scale back,” as Wuthnow says. But other individuals and churches will keep the scales balanced, so to speak, or perhaps even “scale up.” A great deal of the difference seems to do with the kinds of relationships that are cultivated between all the parties involved.

This month’s Christianity Today features a cover package devoted to the challenge faced by non-profit ministries amidst the recent economic downturn. The lengthy analysis defies any easy or simplistic summary of the state of Christian charity. There are examples of ministries that are scaling back as well as those who are enjoying donations at increased levels.

Compassion International and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are cited as those bucking the conventional logic that giving to charities decreases during a recession. “So far, many parachurch ministries are not facing the same income declines as other organizations. In fact, some are forging ahead with bold initiatives that seemingly defy the dour economic tone,” writes John W. Kennedy.

At the same time, Prison Fellowship laid of 40 staffers in January as part of a 12% budget reduction. And in a more recent move, International Aid, based in Spring Lake, Michigan, announced the resignation of Myles Fish as president and CEO. Following a sharp decline in donations, the agreement for Fish to resign is part of a larger restructuring plan to deal with decreased income.

Fish reported that revenue fell by about $600,000 in December of 2008. “People are perhaps more focused on the needs of the local agencies than the international ones,” he said.

So while the results reported by CT might well give us a less pessimistic perspective on the landscape of Christian giving, it also seems true that the economic downturn is changing not only spending habits but also giving patterns. Charities with more marginal loyalties are more likely to suffer than those with a “family-like link,” and there also appears to be a correlative move toward local rather than international needs.

This may not be all bad. I’m not in principle against voluntary wealth transfers between citizens in richer and poorer nations, and I support the work of groups like Compassion International and Five Talents. But the ability for givers to be significantly involved in keeping tabs on the oversight and administration of an agency is usually reduced as the focus moves away from local involvement.