When Prosperity Becomes the Enemy of Charity

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Conservatives are fond of saying our society is sliding in a culture of entitlement.

I agree.

There, I've said it. I've admitted it to myself. Our once-proud nation of individualists and self-starters, of boot-strappers and pioneers, of neighbors and friends, has become a nation of farm animals, waiting to be treated to the next slop of the bucket.

Evidence...Yes, I agree, there needs to be evidence. Without it such a charge should be considered treasonous.

Sadly, the evidence is all too obvious, resting in each failed orchestra and closing art gallery, each struggling museum and -- harsh though it may seem, it is true -- each downsized free clinic and shuttered homeless shelter.

Read TheStreet's Brian O'Connell, Charities Are Already Feeling Dropoff From Fiscal Cliff Uncertainty. In that article, he cites a poll showing 15% of Americans have decided to donate less to charity this year.

More than a third of those said their personal financial situation left them reconsidering their giving levels. A third also singled out rising health-care costs.

True, the incomes of all Americans have suffered mightily. Savings plans were badly impaired by, first, a recession and second, a limping excuse for economic growth. On top of that, the costs of surviving to old age in this grim world have gone up.

Then there's the impending "fiscal cliff" taxation -- again roughly a third of those polled cited this as a reason to give less. The president of the company who commissioned the study offers this quote in O'Connell's article:
. . . with annual charitable giving here in the U.S. still $12 billion below 2007 levels, and no real recovery so far this year, this is not an encouraging sign for nonprofits. . . .

Seems self-evident, doesn't it? Incomes fall, costs and taxes rise...of course, charitable donations take a hit.

But, I submit, it is self-evident because the evil of entitlement has already penetrated to our hearts. Good people have become accustomed to bad ideas, allowing themselves to be led. Laziness passes for freedom.

Let me share a quick story, from the small rural community where I'm originally from, down in the Ohio River Valley. First character: A middle-aged woman, mother of seven kids and wife of a farmer who owns a small sawmill.

She didn't sign up for the farm life, milking cows at 4 a.m. She fell in love with her husband when he was young, dashing and rich, before the Crash of '29. Their courtship was exciting. When all that went to hell, she wasn't happy about it, but she stayed. She stuck it out.

Second character: Preacher's wife. Young woman, new to the community, raising two small children of her own.

The preacher's wife had spent the day meeting parishioners, running errands, helping her husband plan the Sunday schedule, cooking, cleaning, washing, wrestling the kids into their best behaviors, meals, clothes and finally to bed -- it was late evening by now and she was dog-tired.

At that moment, the older woman, the farmer's wife, shows up at the door with buckets and mops. Mind you, she's been up working since 4 a.m. The Andersons down the street have water in their basement, she says. Put on your boots. You're coming with me. We have to go help.

And she went. She didn't want to, didn't even feel physically up to it. But she went.

Many years later, the preacher's wife counted that moment as one of the most important lessons of her adult life: Everybody has a burden, everyone is tired. When someone else is in need, you put your fatigue aside and you help. Not helping is inconceivable.

One of those women is your grandmother, your great-grandmother. Am I right?

So let's revisit the equation I mentioned above, shall we? When hard times hit everyone, when investments and costs are ranged against us and the future is uncertain, charitable donations should drop...? Would those women have agreed?

Absolutely not. When times are hard, charitable donations go up.

Why? Because everyone hurts. If you have strength to spare -- in money or whatever form -- you help.

Charitable donations are dropping right now because of a misplaced sense of entitlement, a nonpartisan mistake reflecting our complete faith in the machinery of society, a worship of efficient systems that do the heavy lifting for us.

For Republicans, it's the free market, which renders more cheaply and more available those products that can best serve the neediest and lifts the incomes of the lowest wage earner and the poorest church. It's automatic. What the free market can't solve, doesn't get solved.

For Democrats, it's institutional giving, be it the government itself or public and private nonprofits. Take the money out of my taxes, they say, and put it where it does the most good. Let me make an annual pre-tax contribution to one or two nonprofits, according to a plan drawn up by my accountant. The checks go out routinely. The less they have to think about it, the better.

For both, the mistake is obvious: Charity is meted by a labor-saving device. Set the thing in motion, retreat to the den or the walled garden. Others handle the work, permitting us to focus on ourselves. A time of need arrives, and our response is not to rush out to help, but to protect the lifestyle of detachment.

Take a look at this New York Times article last weekend on the current spending spree in specialty art products for the wealthiest. In light of the drop in charitable spending overall, the trend makes those wealthy customers appear unimaginably selfish -- the oblivious Marie Antoinettes of the modern age.

What's happening there is the wealthiest are willing to buy art tailored made for themselves -- the gaudiest, most tasteless Trump Tower art -- as long as it is expensive, boosting their status and addressing a rare type of personal, childish greed that most Americans will never know and our society once roundly condemned.

Meanwhile, established, cherished cultural institutions all over the country are going belly up as donations and subscriptions go over a cliff.

We have forgotten obvious truths: The charitable deduction is not the reason we give to charity. Ownership is not the reason we support the arts.

Your current tax burden does not balance against the needs of the charities you've chosen to give to in the past. Your personal finances are, I'm sure, in a terrible state -- I'm sorry to hear it. So are everyone else's. They need your help now more than ever.

Where are the wealthy donors who will say, I will let my investments, my taxes, take a hit, so that the organizations I support can survive?

When times are hard for everyone, charitable donations should go up.

--Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park.

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