COMMENTARY: Solution to poverty is in individual acts

In the era of Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, there is a growing commitment for more government intervention to help the less fortunate. Programs such as food stamps, housing vouchers and a multitude of others exist solely to help the less fortunate, but there have been unsatisfactory results. The consensus in Washington is clear. More and more government programs centered on helping the less fortunate are needed.

In America last year, individuals, estates, corporations and foundations gave more than $410 billion to charities and nonprofits to help their fellow Americans. This $410 billion is more than 2 percent of the gross domestic product. Of these donations, 70 percent is done by individuals, every day normal people like you and I. 

Even more inspiring is that this $410 billion is $20 billion more than what was donated in 2016, which represents a 5-percent increase in total donations. The amount of money being donated is rising but unfortunately, the amount of households donating is actually reducing (even though at its lowest recorded level it still remains at 55.5 percent).

Besides the money, 25.3 percent of all Americans do community service, a volunteer force of 62.8 million people. This volunteer force, larger than the population of most countries, gives 7.9 billion hours of service in 2012 alone. That $410 billion divided among 325 million Americans means each of us (whether we did, I will not judge) donated $1,261 to the less fortunate. In Germany, that number is $67 per person. What is causing this wild difference?

Without a welfare state, people have more income to spend (as the government is not taxing it to fund programs) but also a strong moral incentive to donate to charities since they are very aware that there are not as many government programs to help the poor. This means people have more money to donate to charity and a larger desire to donate. 

In America today, many donators, chiefly in the middle class, are beginning to believe it is the government who will take over in helping the poor and downtrodden. Once the government assumes the role of public provider for the people, the moral expectation for private citizens to donate to charities almost vanishes.

There is a profound psychological reaction to the idea of a “welfare state,” a state by definition in which “government undertakes to protect the health and well-being of its citizens.” In European states where this form of state is most practiced, people pay taxes with the expectation that the government will manage their money to help cover social service. People become content as they think they have done their part to help the less fortunate. But, there are alternatives to consider.

What does this absence of a welfare state create? With more money on hand and a strong moral imperative, people are prepared to donate more of their money to the less fortunate. In 2010, 15.1 percent of Americans were in poverty, the same percentage as it was in 1983, which was only topped by the year 1964: The year the War on Poverty began. The size of the government was much smaller in 1964 or even 1983, but it is still as unequipped to deal with the issue of poverty in this country as it is in 2019. A "New Deal” to fight poverty from our friends in Washington is not “new” but old and it is not a “deal” but a theft.

At Rutgers University alone, the size and expectation of community service is extraordinary. Things such as Enactus, Dance Marathon and greek life have provided millions of dollars and thousands of service hours to the world out of the good will of students. Not only does private charity (as presented through these mediums) help people, but it also provides real life experience and social networking for those doing the charity, ensuring everyone gains something from the exchange. 

The concept of community service is so universal and help is held with such high esteem here that Rutgers decided to make a minimum of 30 hours of approved service work hours over the first three years mandatory for students in the Honors College. This was not ordered by the government, but by a college that realized there are many benefits of service-minded citizens for America, the primary one being more Americans being provided with food, medicine and other necessities.

In 50 years, the buildup, scope and debt of the national government have demonstrated that the government’s war on poverty (like so many of its wars) has had no real progress. Americans, those paying taxes and those that desperately in need of aid are being let down. What if the solution to poverty is not more government, but instead more charity? If that is so, the government’s best opportunity to help Americans is to let us help ourselves.

Michael Vespa is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in  political science and minoring in philosophy and history.

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