Around the time I graduated from college, I volunteered with the youth group at my church in Minneapolis. Every year the assistant pastor took high school kids on a trip to Chicago. He’d sell it as a time to have some fun in the “Windy City.” But his goal was not necessarily recreational. While we were there, we would ride the “L” train through the city, observing mile after mile of people living in poverty outside the window. The point was to demonstrate the scope of the challenge to ameliorate poverty—and that private efforts were merely a drop in the bucket of what would be necessary. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
I thought of that when I read that Donald Trump has said that he will donate $1 million personally for relief efforts in the wake of Harvey. Of course, given his track record, there are valid questions about whether or not he’ll follow through. But let’s put that potential gift in perspective. Estimates of the economic costs of Hurricane Harvey are coming it at somewhere in the neighborhood of $190 billion. That means that Trump’s gift would cover .0005 percent of the cost (if I did my math right). That doesn’t even qualify as a drop in the bucket. Another way of looking at it would be that it would take 190,000 donations of $1 million to cover the costs.
Trump is now president of the United States of America. That job requires that he see the big picture and bring the one entity to bear on relief efforts that could actually have an impact: the federal government.
I’m not saying that I have a problem with Trump donating $1 million to Hurricane Harvey relief. Let’s just keep in mind that he once promised to donate five times that much to a charity if Barack Obama released his passport and college records. So that provides some perspective on what $1 million means to him. I also don’t think that the federal government should cover all the costs of hurricane relief. There is a role for state and local governments to play—as well as individuals and charities. But I’ll give a pass on getting all “rah-rah” about the president’s promise until he makes a serious attempt to ensure that the federal government steps up to play its role.