- Politics and Social Issues
The Hypocritical United States of Donations
Every year from Halloween to New Years Day is the holiday charity tax write-off season in the United States. The call comes from the Salvation Army, the Christian Children's Fund, CARE, and the United Way as well food programs and homeless shelters across the nation. While the United States people give the most, approaching nearly $300 billion in 2011, the United States government spends the least on social welfare programs compared to other industrialized nations.
Many politicians say we can’t afford all this social spending. However, “Canada currently spends 26% of their GDP on social programs, yet their national debt is very small compared to the United States, it is about 50% of GDP.” (ibid) While individual giving is great, it doesn’t solve the structural problems of economic inequality and poverty we have in the United States. And when giving, large foundations such as the Gates and Ford Foundations want to know what is the R.O.I., return on investment.
Peter Buffett calls it the “charitable-industrial complex”, “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”
Donations are a costly way to do business, as it was in New Orleans. If the government had not cut the funding for levees and spent the money needed to protect the citizens from the rising waters, we wouldn’t have had to spend 100 billion dollars to repair the damage. And, the U.S. public wouldn’t have needed to donate so many millions for food, clothing, water and other essentials to help the people of New Orleans if the levees had been fortified before hurricane Katrina.
These donations are not free; they are planned tax cuts for individuals and corporations. As the adage goes, caring for the poor and needy based on donations is penny wise and pound foolish. Charitable giving is wonderful, but not at the expense of common sense, caring government prevention and intervention when times are tough.
Walmart is a major player in the charitable-industrial complex. Reeling from a bad image brought on by low wages, Asian sweatshops and the “destruction of small town America”, they have made some high profile donations to shore up a caring image. While it might show caring, none of their donations are going to poverty programs or health care for its workers. What Walmart could do to really help people is pay their workers a living wage instead of donating a billion of dollars to various charities.
The Walmart Foundation gives to hunger programs. However, “Wal-Mart's poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps.” They give to charities while keeping their workers on poverty wages. Walmart also donates money for school lunches for kids while the government cuts its school lunch program. If the government raised the minimum wage, donations wouldn’t be as essential for worker survival, and the nation would save money by paying less for welfare for low-wage Walmart workers.
Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world. And their policies create food insecurity. Yet, they give to charities for the hungry. By donating to these charities, they enhance their public image and get tax cuts to boot. If their products helped elevate hunger, then perhaps their donations wouldn’t be so hypocritical. Public and corporate donations to the extent the U.S. gives, along with the nation’s high poverty rate, is a sign of structural weakness in society.
The Nike Foundation has a program to support girls and end poverty in the third world. However, anybody that knows about working conditions and wages in Nike’s Asian factories knows how hypocritical this is. Nike is trying to white-wash their corporate practices with what amounts to pocket change. Their Girl Hub program had a total budget of $24.6 million in 2012 to use over the next few years. That is a pittance compared their $10.5 billion in gross income in 2012.
End of the year donations and charitable corporate foundation giving do nothing to reduce the structural inequality in our society. We might feel good about ourselves when every year we open up our pocket books or like politicians, the same politicians that vote for big cuts to social programs, show up to dole out mashed potatoes to the hungry on Thanksgiving. But where are we the rest of the year when people need help? People should give throughout the year, not just during the tax break, I mean holiday, season. We should also call on our nation to have a government that doesn’t dole out largess to the top 1% through “tax incentives”, tax loopholes and corporate friendly legislation while cutting social programs.
Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too vigorously for our generosity. The U.S. ranks 35th in the world in child poverty in the industrialized world, just above Romania. The United States also ranks near the bottom in income distribution. This highlights the structural deficiency in our current political and economic system. A few donations over the holidays won’t improve the long term economic situation for the majority of Americans. Only a restructuring of our capitalist system and a change in our spending priorities can fix that.