How Republicans Are Undermining Charitable Giving

Conservatives have often made the case that they are not immune to the concerns of the poor and disposed in this country. They just don’t think that it is the government’s job to do anything about their plight. The case is often made that it is up to the private nonprofit sector (especially churches) to care for the needy. Does anyone remember George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” initiative? This is from his 1989 inaugural address:

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding.

Apparently that kind of thinking is now passé among Republicans. David Callahan describes how their tax bill will affect charitable giving and the nonprofit sector.

According to an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation provisions of the House bill – specifically, a doubling of the standard deduction – 31 million taxpayers would no longer be incentivized to make charitable deductions, gutting a tax break that has helped spur giving for 100 years.

Scrapping the estate tax – another feature of the House bill (although not the Senate version) – would lower donations by eliminating a major incentive for the wealthiest Americans to devote large fortunes to philanthropy…

The bill would also impose a 1.4% tax on income generated by university endowments, and penalize nonprofit executive salaries over $1m a year – although it says nothing about exponentially higher levels of corporate compensation.

According to one estimate, these changes could lower overall charitable giving by as much as $13 billion per year in this country. Beyond that, various versions of the House bill have repealed all or part of what has been called the “Johnson amendment” that prohibits tax exempt organizations from endorsing specific candidates. There has been some back-and-forth about whether such a repeal would apply only to churches and religious organizations, or if it should be rolled back for all non-profits. But the effect would be that wherever the repeal was applied, organizations would turn into nothing more than pass throughs for wealthy donors—similar to super PACs.

I’m sure there are still some conservatives who believe that religious institutions and nonprofits should flourish as an alternative to government programs. But as Callahan points out, the claims about Donald Trump’s charitable giving have been pretty thoroughly debunked, while his administration has proposed drastic cuts to federal agencies that provide billions of dollars in grants to universities, hospitals, museums and community development groups. i.e., Meals on Wheels.

Beyond Trump, there is a growing antipathy among some conservatives for philanthropic causes.

In other countries that have veered into authoritarianism, like Russia, civil society groups have faced outright suppression. Nothing like that is happening in the US yet, but Trumpist culture warriors have cast nonprofits and philanthropists as key villains in a narrative that pits coastal elites against the common (white) man.

Hillary Clinton may have lost the election, but the Clinton Foundation – an organization that mainly works on global health issues – remains at the center of feverish conspiracy theories. And hardly a day goes by without Breitbart running a paranoid story involving Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, or George Soros. Craven university leaders beholden to PC activists are another favorite target of scorn in the conservative media.

We’ve seen an assault on government institutions and the media from this administration and it’s supporters. But this attempt to smear philanthropy and nonprofits, combined with the way the tax cut bill undermines their sustainability, is an attack on a part of our civil society that has long been immune from the partisan divide. Apparently the current GOP is prepared to change all that and distance themselves from support for charitable giving. That strikes me as not simply a bad move for the country, but a rather ignorant one from Republicans. Of course, I’ve been having that reaction a lot lately.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.