The lesson from the Families First debacle is that we should never confuse local, private charity with taxpayer-funded, government-granted charity.
In 2018, $428 billion was given to charity in the United States of America. Sixty-eight percent of that giving was given by individuals; 18 percent by foundations; 9 percent by bequests, and only five percent by corporations. Of the types of giving, $125 billion was given to religious causes – by far the largest category of all giving. Education was a distant second, receiving $59 billion.
The evidence is very clear in America. We are a generous lot and the most generous among us are religious. Religious practice is the behavioral variable most consistently associated with charitable giving. What’s more, the religious giver is also much more likely to give to secular causes than the non-religious.
According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, Mississippi ranks number two nationally in the percentage of our gross income that goes to charitable giving. We are second only to Utah, which has a disproportionate number of Mormons, who are expected to give at least 10 percent. Utahans give 6.2 percent of their gross income on average whereas Mississippians give 5.6 percent of theirs.
It is no surprise then to know that Mississippians also rank at the top in several categories of religious practice. According to the most recent data from Pew Research, we rank number one for belief in heaven (88 percent); the frequency of prayer (75 percent); frequency of reading scripture weekly (59 percent); religious service attendance (49 percent); and participation in religious study and education (43 percent).
But there is one piece of data from the Pew Research that caught my eye and sent a shiver up my spine. Despite our remarkable history of charitable giving and religious practice, we only ranked number 33 in the number of residents who believe in limited government. This is a yawning paradox. And it’s in total incongruence with the above.
Not only is this lack of a belief in limited government not consistent with the behaviors of most Mississippians, it’s also not consistent with Christian doctrine. Theologians from across the spectrum of Christianity have warned of the danger of the consolidation of power into higher-level organizations. John Locke, whose writing heavily influenced our own founders’ view of liberty, was himself a deeply religious man who consistently warned of the disempowerment of ourselves and our communities of the responsibility we own naturally to help others by leaning instead on a large, complex, and expensive government.
Pope John Paul II once wrote about what happens when the government intervenes into the communities and starts competing with local charities, saying, “this leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
We have missed these warmings. We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that our tax dollars are an efficient way to solve problems and meet need where it is. It is only in a place where we’ve transferred personal accountability to the state and ceded moral authority in exchange for federal grants that a program like Families First could emerge.
Rather than trust government propaganda and unaccountable claims of doing good, we need to be engaged and aware of what is being done in the name of our “common good.” Thankfully, State Auditor Shad White and his staff were able to prevent further waste and theft in the name of charity. We should heed the lesson.
There are major differences between charities that depend upon the giving of donors to fund specific types of work and the non-profits who depend upon government grants for funding and often morph and change their missions in order to qualify for grants, which are of course ultimately funded by taxpayers. Perhaps this will help us to recognize the incongruence of our nature as one of the most generous and religious states in America but one that has fallen into the trap of a dependence upon government.
We can do better. God has already shown us the way.
This column appeared in the Clarion Ledger on March 11, 2020.