The role of private charity versus that of state-sponsored social programs remains a hotly contested issue in Right vs. Left politics, with the Right typically favoring a heavy or total reliance upon private charity, and the Left typically calling for a more robust emphasis on state-provided programs. What is often presumed, however, in this political discourse is that Christianity, like conservatism, requires a total reliance on private charity to deliver services to the needy. This could not be more wrong.
The reason the political debate is back in the news is a recent essay in Democracy Journal concerning the conservative premise that voluntary charity could or should supplant state programs aimed at addressing joblessness, illness, accident, and old age. In the article, Mike Konczal labeled such conservative ideation "the voluntarism fantasy," pointing out that in the American context, "complex interaction between public and private social insurance… has always existed in the United States."
As well, Konczal argues, it should. Konczal reasons that, rather than state support for social programs working against the institution and practice of private charity, it provides a better stage for it. Such a minimum guarantee, he writes:
[A]llows [charity] to fully thrive. It enables private charity to respond with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities, rather than shouldering the huge, cumbersome burden of alleviating the income insecurities of a modern age…And it also establishes a baseline of equality and solidarity among all citizens, so that charity enhances the lives of the less fortunate instead of forcing them to rely on those with money and luck. [Democracy Journal]
Konczal references the vision of charity that President Truman once expressed, but the notion that the state can play an important role in the best possible exercise of charity has profound roots in the Christian tradition as well. Though the conservatives who mount the case that social needs currently addressed by state programs should be relegated to private charity are often themselves Christian, the Christian ethical case for welfare and private charity co-existing is not often cited.
So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an "existence minimum" which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. Since the guarantee of stability promised by an existence minimum is the foundation upon which lives can be built — and because voluntary private charity is by nature not a guarantee — the state is the best mechanism to deliver a baseline standard of living.
Another practical Christian consideration ruling in favor of a state-provided existence minimum arises from the troubling power situations created by leaving the necessities of life up to the auspices of private charities — even churches. As Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, like the noblesse oblige of pre-industrial days, "philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the privileged are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice."
In other words, Niebuhr is remarkably realistic about the motives that give rise to charitable giving among the wealthy, whose gifts by nature of their size have the biggest impact. Niebuhr's analysis may seem somewhat cynical, but it is true that the wealthy tend to give more to universities, museums, and arts organizations — all arenas in which their power and prestige are more easily connoted and recognized by their peers with whom they compete for status. The poor, meanwhile, tend to give to churches and social service organizations.
The latter part of Niebuhr's formulation is true as well, and it is perhaps the most worrying risk of turning social services over to the voluntary caprices of the rich: When the wealthy have the power to determine who receives the necessities of life, they tend to reinforce the power structures that led to the entrenchment of their wealth in the first place, rather than to challenge them. This is especially troubling if one considers that churches would likely bear a considerable burden in the event that all social programs were dispensed with and left up to voluntary charity.
In short, some churches would easily be able to bear the burden of meeting the needs of their congregants because some churches have rich congregants and others poor. The Pew Forum's Religion and Public Life survey reveals that among congregants of mainline Protestant churches, 21 percent bring in over $100,000 a year, while only 8 percent of the congregants of historically black churches do so. Further emphasizing the interdenominational income divide, 25 percent of mainline congregants make under $30,000 a year compared to 47 percent of those at historic black churches. Jehova's Witnesses bear a similar stratification, with 9 percent bringing in $100,000 or more a year and 42 percent bringing in less than $30,000.
Theoretically, members of poor churches without the income distribution to care for their relatively higher proportions of poor congregants would need to rely upon whatever locally available organizations deigned to help them. In impoverished areas, it is difficult to see how any local organization would scrape up the money to support such a burden; in areas of inequality, wealthy churches would be charged with the task of caring for members of poor churches.
It is not difficult to imagine the power such an arrangement would grant to wealthier churches over members of different and poorer congregations. With their base of community support disconnected from their own congregations and transferred to the hands of wealthier denominations, it is unclear how smaller, poorer churches could even survive without being arrogated wholly into stronger denominations with the power to assert their primacy. Currently, assistance doesn't come with a dose of doctrine — but it could, quite easily, should anyone take seriously the conservative notion that social services more rightly belong to voluntary organizations than to the state.
None of this is to say, of course, that charity is inherently dangerous or that it is wrong; it is merely to point out that one can construct states in a charitable spirit, toward enduring equality and neutrality in distribution of assistance, and know that because the state operates on more than capriciously voluntary premises, it is likely that programs shaped in that spirit will have a good deal of stability. This effectively allows charity to function, as Konczal says, as it should: with all flexibility and sensitivity to specific situations and local needs, without being overwhelmed by uneven demands. In that sense, both the state and voluntary charity can operate in the charitable spirit without placing the demands of one onto the other, and in doing so protect the most vulnerable to the greatest extent of both their powers.