Where Does the Line Between Vital Services and Charity Lie?

Starting in the Bush Administration, there was an increasing push in the United States to privatise the provision of welfare programmes from education to food assistance. The administration popularised the idea of ‘faith-based charities’ that could provide services so the government wouldn’t have to, and promoted a sort of ‘every person for themselves’ approach to welfare and survival in the United States. This push has increased with the economic crisis, as the government slashes funding to social programmes and anticipates that charities will pick up the slack, even though they, too, have funding problems, and many are struggling with smaller budgets than before, and a larger clientele of people who desperately need their assistance.

Approaches to social wellbeing have seesawed back and forth over the course of human history, and vary considerably between nations. Some countries promote a basic standard of living for all citizens, believe in welfare programmes, and provide a wide range of services to make sure that everyone can look forward to at least some quality of life. Others are more of a free for all, and rely more heavily on charity-based models to provide services to citizens. Here in North America, there was a time when charity provided almost everything, before a transition to government funding for things like education, in recognition of the fact that charity was not working. Now, we appear to be returning to that, which means that perhaps in another 40 years we’ll see a return to more government provision of services.

My question is where the difference, the line, between charities and vital government services lies. I view things like health care, education, and environmental protection as vital government services. I believe they should be funded by the government, that there should be agencies to supervise them and to make sure that they are provided equally and fairly to everyone in the United States, citizens and noncitizens alike, that the government has an obligation to provide these things. Not just because I am a bleeding heart who believes we have a social obligation to limit suffering and protect the environment, but also because there are clear social benefits to providing these things. Education, for instance, assures me that when I need medical care, doctors will be available. That if I need an attorney, someone with adequate training and experience will be accessible. These are benefits to society as a whole that also promote national security, as a healthy, stable society is one less vulnerable to external threats.

I also think that things like roads are an important government services, that regulatory agencies to supervise air traffic and drug regulation and many other things are clearly critically needed. Many people seem to agree on these grounds because these are resources that many people use; even conservatives who don’t believe in ‘government interference’ need to be able to drive and tend to be fans of well paved and properly maintained roads. Likewise, many people seem to believe that the United States needs a military, and requires law enforcement agencies, to protect itself at home and abroad, that these services are critical and should not be eliminated or cut.

Where is the line between charity and vital services? The provision of paved roads could just as easily be considered a charity. The benefits of paved roads, things like easier commerce and trade, increased access, are, surely, charitable things provided to citizens as a gift, not critical to the nation. If we believed that commerce and trade were important, we would agree that highly trained professionals who innovate and create new products and develop new services are important, and we would agree that education to make sure such individuals exist would, thus, be a critical government service. That equally accessible high quality public education should be a priority.

What is the difference between roads and schools? Both are services to citizens that make our lives personally more pleasant and enjoyable in addition to providing social benefits. Why is one viewed as absolutely critical, while the other is not? Why can we all agree that dangerous bridges should be replaced, while kindergarten teachers are far too numerous, and we really don’t need as many of them? Surely one can handle a class of fifty students, and we could use the money from that education cut to buy some nice office furniture for the Department of Defense.

Expectations that charity will provide are fundamentally based on a devaluation of some services, deemed not important enough for the government to prioritise. At the same time, the government cynically relies on people who passionately believe these services are vital, think that people should not starve to death or die of untreated medical conditions, to provide these things. Even if charity-based provision of services is not entirely efficient, may be filled with gaps, and doesn’t meet the needs of all citizens. Charities are assured they’re doing important work, receive minimal assistance, and are fundamentally doing the government’s job for it, intervening in a situation where it is clear that the government will remain passive.

The United States seems to have a conflicted view of its goals and what it wants, based on the way the government prioritises funding and approaches to social issues. It wants to be a dominant innovator and inventor, contributing new technology and other developments, but it doesn’t want to invest in the infrastructure to support that. It wants to be known as a happy, healthy, wealthy place, or at least so narratives about bootstrapping and the American Dream tell us, but, again, it doesn’t want to actually pay for that. It wants to be a land of opportunity, without actually making opportunity possible.