PHILADELPHIA — When it comes to poverty, myths abound.
Americans believe that legions of folks are on welfare, for example, when only 10 percent of the poor receive cash assistance.
Some politicians claim that a large percentage of food-stamp recipients cheat to reap benefits, though fraud levels are quite low.
And for years, it’s been asserted that charity can replace the dollars spent by the federal government on hunger programs — despite numbers that show it’s not true.
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At the same time that poverty and hunger are rising, the U.S. House of Representatives in March passed a proposed budget that would, if ratified, cut food-stamp benefits by around 18 percent ($135 billion over 10 years), which would end assistance to millions of people. It would also change the way food stamps are distributed, resulting in fewer benefits for millions more Americans.
Charity can fill in any holes that develop, say tea-party activists as well as Republican politicians like Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the budget’s author.
But charity experts say that’s a mathematical impossibility.
“There’s a myth of charity out there,” said Elizabeth Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, which researches the impact of philanthropy. “Anyone who thinks that private charity will make up for lowered government budgets is whistling Dixie.”
Americans like to think of themselves as bighearted and eager to help those less fortunate. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the crises after the explosions in Texas and Boston — these disasters brought out the best in people, who didn’t hesitate to give.
But for the steady-state emergency that is hunger in America, no amount of charitable giving has been enough, experts say.
“Americans are very generous, but people don’t appreciate the scope of poverty in the United States,” said Kathy Saile, director of the office of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The amount of hunger reduction by the federal government dwarfs what charities in the faith community are doing.”
Overall, the U.S. government spends $105 billion annually on food programs to help the hungry, federal figures show.
The bulk of that is the nearly $80 billion for food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). The balance goes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); school breakfast and lunch programs; and other initiatives.
Feeding America, the largest food charity in the United States (and one of the largest charities overall), moves $5 billion of food and funding to hungry people each year. But even that is a drop in the bucket compared with SNAP.
“No charity in the history of the planet could come up with the $80 billion for SNAP,” said Ross Fraser, director of media relations for Feeding America. “It doesn’t make sense to talk about charity alone helping the hungry. It’d be like saying, why not let the military rely on charitable contributions.”
Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, as well as commentators like Pat Buchanan, have expressed preference for charity over government to solve societal ills such as hunger. Many say private giving, not government aid, has kept America going through the decades.
But, said University of Pennsylvania history professor Michael Katz, an expert on the history of poverty, “That’s never been true. The notion that private charities can pick up the burden is a canard.”
The total of U.S. philanthropy is currently $300 billion, according to Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at Penn, a nonprofit focused on improving the impact of charity.
The amount represents all the money that people give away, most of it to churches and other religious institutions — 32 percent, or nearly $96 billion. A good deal of the rest goes to hospitals, universities and cultural institutions such as museums, noted Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, an organization that helps donors make more informed charitable-giving decisions.
Just a small portion of those dollars goes to help the poor, noted Borochoff. “You have to think of charities as icing on the cake,” he said. “They do not do the heavy lifting.”
Many activists say that if taxes are reduced, private giving will automatically increase. But history shows that’s incorrect.
For each of the last 40 years, Americans have given away the same proportion of money without change: roughly 2 percent of GDP. Even after the Bush tax cuts in the early part of the century, the rate of giving didn’t rise, experts say.
As it happens, 69 percent of Americans believe the federal government should have a major role in providing food to low-income families, according to a 2012 poll by Hart Research Associates, which measures attitudes toward the poor.
Beyond that, a large percentage of nonprofit money that’s given to charity actually comes from the federal government, which is a huge contributor to charities such as Feeding America, said Boris, of the Urban Institute.