I was surprised and pleased by the question posed by Bill Schambra in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op ed: Is Conservative Philanthropy Ignoring the Poor? His thoughtful article provided a refreshing counterpoint to some of the anti-poor messaging of the Republican primaries. It should be noted that in Democratic primaries, by contrast, candidates don’t so much attack the poor as simply ignore them.
I share Schambra’s admiration for the generous men and women of all political and social ideologies who understand the obligations of living in community. One of the most “progressive” programs in the country, in my view, was launched by a couple with impeccable conservative bona fides. The Taylor Plan, which started in Louisiana but has now been adopted in 21 states, leverages public money with private money to guarantee a college education to all qualifying high school graduates. It’s difficult to find a more compelling contemporary example of work that might over time significantly reduce racial disparities in higher education.
Some readers might have stumbled, as I did, on Schambra’s invocation of George W. Bush as an icon of the “compassionate conservatism” his article celebrates. Many liberals and conservatives still fail to see the compassion in state-sanctioned torture, and in a war declared on false premises that has cost thousands of military and civilian lives and bankrupted the country. Under President Bush, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was notorious for political cronyism, frequently accused of linking grant monies to campaign support.
Putting this issue aside, we can more clearly focus on the heart of Schambra’s argument, which is this:
… [B]eyond the problem of political image lies the more substantial issue of conservatism’s enduring charitable obligation to the poor. Ardent advocacy for reduced government spending is fine, but it must be matched with serious regard for the needs of those affected. This is a moral demand upon a movement that takes moral demands seriously.
A refreshing call to action. As an example of a serious regard for the needs of the poor, Schambra cites a group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver whose largesse helped Step 13, “a small, scruffy rehabilitation center for addicts,” buy the building it could no longer rent.
First, hats off to this forward-thinking group of businessmen who, without being solicited, saw a significant community need and responded to it. Addiction is not an issue typically embraced by individual donors, conservative or otherwise. I’m reminded of the Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region in my own beloved city, an organization that has championed the very difficult issue of prisoner re-entry and re-integration.
Having given credit where credit is due, I invite the reader to reflect on the philanthropic archetype proposed by Schambra, in which a generous patron bestows favor on a grateful supplicant. What concerns me is that this assistance for the supplicant depends very much on the vagaries and inconstancies of donor volition. What if this group of businessmen had not heard about the plight of Step 13? What if they happened to be strapped for cash this particular quarter? Should services for the addicted, a clear and consistent public need, depend so much on chance?
Sticking with this inspiring example, I would rather that our collective noblesse (mine included) be more than morally obliged since experience shows that individual volition can make for a flimsy safety net, especially in those cases where the supplicant has participated in his own ruin. I know that some donors put homeless addicts in the category of the “undeserving poor,” making fundraising for organizations like Step 13 a real challenge.
In complex societies, individuals are typically obliged to support important public goods through taxation. Being a small government liberal, I’m no friend of taxes, and if Mr. Schambra has an alternative, I’d like to hear it. Perhaps instead of levying taxes, we can agree to impose schmaxes, the latter coming into force when and only when the spirit of charity fails us.