Charity can’t replace the safety net

Governor Mary Fallin touring the Tulsa food bank
Governor Mary Fallin touring the Tulsa food bank

The third annual food drive sponsored by Governor Fallin and Oklahoma’s Regional Food Banks began this week. In previous years, the food drive has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars and many more pounds of food for Oklahoma’s poorest families. Yet even as Governor Fallin travels the state seeking contributions for meals, Republicans in Congress are attempting to undo all of her work.

House Republicans, including all five members of Oklahoma’s delegation, recently voted to make deep cuts to the food stamp program (SNAP). The GOP’s proposed cuts would be on top of cuts already on the way due to the expiration of stimulus funds. These cuts would work out to a loss of 4.5 million meals for Oklahoma’s poorest families (based on the average cost of a meal and the level of food stamp need in our state). To put that in perspective, Governor Fallin’s annual food drive last year raised the equivalent of 2.6 million meals. The food stamp cuts would eliminate nearly twice that.

How much more of a burden would food stamp cuts put on our state’s hunger-fighting nonprofits? Feeding America calculated that that the GOP proposal and the end of the stimulus could together eliminate more meals than the total distributed by every food bank nationwide. As Torri Christian, the director of advocacy and policy for Oklahoma’s regional food banks, told the National Journal ,”We do publicly support SNAP not just because we can’t do more, but if we want to end hunger we have to advocate for safety nets.” 

Critics of the safety net sometimes argue that it should be the role of charity and not government to help the poorest Americans meet their basic needs. However, charities simply don’t have the capacity to replace government safety net programs. Take it from Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said, “Americans are very generous, but people don’t appreciate the scope of poverty in the United States. The amount of hunger reduction by the federal government dwarfs what charities in the faith community are doing.”

Most charitable donations do not even go to help the poor. According to Giving USA, contributions for human services made up just 13 percent of the donations given in 2012. A much larger portion of charitable contributions subsidizes groups catering mostly to middle- and upper-income Americans — such as wealthy churches, prestigious universities or private academies, museums, and advanced medical research institutes. Certainly many of these are worthy causes, but they are not in the safety net business.

Non-profits can serve a valuable role in launching pilot projects with more innovative approaches than large government programs. For example, the George Kaiser Family Foundation has been instrumental in creating three Educare schools to provide world-class early education to low-income children. The Educare schools currently serve about 500 kids in Tulsa and 200 kids in Oklahoma City. Even at that level, GKFF and other private donors cover just 12 percent of Tulsa Educare’s budget, with state and federal dollars making up the majority of funds. Research shows that these schools are working to close the achievement gap for our state’s poorest kids, but this successful model cannot be implemented statewide without a major government investment.

In fact, government is already the biggest single contributor to non-profits nationwide. According to the Urban Institute, private contributions made up just 13.3 percent of non-profit revenue in 2010. Government grants and other government payments made up 32.2 percent.

So even in normal times, charity alone would not provide an adequate safety net. That’s compounded during a recession — when help is needed most, charity is least able to help. Giving fell dramatically in 2008 and 2009, and it has not yet recovered to pre-recession levels. In contrast, any effective anti-poverty program needs to boost spending when need increases, which is exactly what we saw with the food stamp program and the economic stimulus bill. Federal efforts to protect struggling families and boost the economy were limited by state and local budget cuts, but they still prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty.

We have thankfully moved out of recession, but too many jobs still do not pay a living wage. Charity does not even come close to meeting the need. Maintaining the safety net for those left behind in the modern economy is a moral obligation for us all, and only government has the resources to keep it standing.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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