Does U.S. charity really do damage?

February 06, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

"What's Love Got to Do With It? A Critical Look At American Charity," by David Wagner. The New Press. 203 pages. $25.

'Tis just after the holiday season, and all through the land many of us have recently donated toys for a poor child's Christmas or written a check to the local food bank. We got a double whammy: the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of giving and a year-end tax deduction. Who could find fault?

Along comes David Wagner to rain on our parade. In "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Wagner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine, takes on one of America's most sacred and increasingly powerful sectors: the nonprofit world. He makes the provocative case that even charity can be a bad thing: Standing in the way of real improvements for the poor, while providing help that's largely cosmetic when compared with the potential power of much larger government dollars.

Promoting private charity as a way out of public problems is a popular refrain among politicians of all stripes. Yet Wagner points out the boards of the growing ranks of private foundations and nonprofits -- many founded so wealthy citizens could dodge huge tax bills -- are unelected by and in many ways unaccountable to the public, even as they influence public policy. And those boards increasingly have replaced material benefits to citizens, such as welfare, with more nebulous services like counseling, he points out. He finds this reminiscent of the "visiting" society ladies of the late 19th century who really were bent on reforming the characters of the poor women to whom they doled pittances.

Wagner examines institutions such as the YMCA, which have transformed over time from serving the indigent to catering to the middle class, at the expense of the U.S. tax base. He looks at large health charities, with familiar names, which rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in donations for what may in the end be repetitious health advice. And he notes the unclean hands of some large corporate donors, who lend their names and dollars to charity events in order to get advertising on the cheap.

As a sociological sketch, Wagner's book will be interesting reading for donors, policymakers and advocates for the poor, primarily as an academic argument that charity can actually perpetuate inequity. With charities' influence growing, the time is right to raise red flags -- and Wagner's are largely on target.

As provocative and timely as Wagner's book is, however, it gives cursory treatment to the most important development of charities as government service providers: welfare reform. With thousands of nonprofits (and for-profits) promising to help former welfare recipients find and keep jobs, government has never relied more heavily on the "independent" sector to help it perform a demonstrable task.

It can be argued that those nonprofits have done their job well, if one looks at the large numbers of people who have moved from welfare to work in recent years. Many of those jobs are low-paying, creating a new category of poverty, but over time they may represent the kind of material change in the lives of poor clients that Wagner argues charities rarely provide.

Could government do better still? Wagner takes a quick look at countries like France that provide broad social programs, but he doesn't really explore the issue. His book attempts principally to raise questions in an unquestioning age. But that approach is too narrow as the nonprofit sector continues to grow in power and influence, and as the gulf continues to widen between the boom-times rich and the working poor.

Kate Shatzkin writes about nonprofit instituitions for The Sun. She also has covered courts and social issues in her 12 years as a journalist.

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