Some conservatives have begun to again argue that government should no longer provide for essential social services.  They say that charity can be an adequate and acceptable substitute for government in meeting needs and resolving social problems.  That is a befogging illusion created more in service to ideology than to society.

Charitable resources are dwarfed by government funding for social programs and there’s no sign individual and corporate contributions or social entrepreneurship makes up for even partial cuts.  Even if foundations gave away every last dollar in all of their endowments, that would do little more than cover this year’s federal deficit with a fraction left toward next year’s.

But resource questions cover the real agenda:  it’s about conservatives insisting that problems are much more a consequence of failures of personal responsibility than of any broader societal or economic dynamics.  They contend that the problem is poor people and not poverty, and that the remedy must be approached person-by-person, with little or no attention to correcting inadequacies in governmental institutions, programs, and policies.  In effect, they see poverty as a consequence of bad people making bad decisions and doing bad things; they see personal redemption, education and hard work as the only solution. Liberals, on the other hand, understand that government action is necessary to create the conditions under which individual responsibility can be successfully developed and exercised, including politically. 

In the face of a deluding exaggeration of the scope and power of charity and a continuing assault on scope and power of government, nonprofit organizations need to find new ways to improve and defend government programs while popularizing a sense of public responsibility among Americans as taxpayers, donors, volunteers, and voters. And philanthropic foundations need to fuel those efforts.

An elaboration of this discussion is in the current issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.