Nonprofits across the country are scrambling for charitable dollars because recent experience has taught them not to depend on government funds to address public problems. Economist Arthur Brooks used The Wall Street Journal (a strange choice of vehicle, it seems to me) to advise nonprofits to rely more on private contributions than on government “subsidies,” suggesting that tax-fueled funding is undependable when it comes to paying for human services and meeting societal needs; it seems the money just isn’t always there. Or is it?
Surprisingly, even while handing out more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest among us in recent years, the Republican-controlled Congress passed enough off-budget special appropriations to pay for about 50 years of HeadStart for each of the million or so kids enrolled in that program. These same appropriations could cover about 16 years of medical insurance for every child living in poverty in the U.S.; or pay four-year state tuition for every undergraduate at every U.S. college and university—and still have a bit left over to send some on to grad school.
In fact, these off-budget appropriations could fund enough new public housing to accommodate the U.S. homeless population in permanent residences, and even provide some with vacation homes. But that’s not what President Bush asked for, and not what Congress gave him. The appropriations didn’t fund public institutions or nonprofit organizations.
Instead the money was used to do wrong. It has paid for a war, started with shameful deceit and continued in a fog of failure and lies, that has cost over 3,000 American lives, wounded well over 22,000 American men and women, and resulted in the deaths of between 52,000 and 600,000 Iraqis (larger estimate by Johns Hopkins University scholars). Congress has already appropriated over $350 billion for that war (more than $200 million a day) beyond regular military budgets, and costs are projected to total over a trillion dollars after continuing care for the wounded is factored in.
Shouldn’t nonprofits have said something about this? Shouldn’t they say something now? We move from bake sales into social ventures to start bakeries, but we forsake basic financing—we have a right, an obligation, to demand that our government use funds to do good instead of wrong.
In a sector grounded in values and in a sense of humanity, we have the responsibility of outrage. Silence is an abdication in the face of an abomination. The new Democratic Congress needs to hear charities’ voices!
NOTE: In my haste to post the original version of this now-revised blog entry, I conflated a number of points Dr. Brooks has made and ascribed them to the WSJ piece. My apologies to him and SSIR readers.
Mark Rosenman is a public service professor at the Union Institute & University, where he has long worked in various roles. He sees his 20-plus years of initiative to strengthen the nonprofit sector as an extension of earlier professional efforts in the civil rights movement, urban anti-poverty work, international and domestic program development, and higher education.