Do they need our charity?
President Obama has released his tax returns–that ever-strange feature of American politics. Yet, the tax return gives us an interesting view into one bit of our tax law that needs substantial reform: the charitable donation. As you’ll note from my shoddy circling, President Obama donated $5,000 to Sidwell Friends School. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the President’s daughters attend that school.
Now, Sidwell Friends School is a private school with high tuition ($31,960 a year). Do they really need additional funding? Or perhaps, put differently, do they deserve tax-deductible charitable giving?
Furthermore, to what extent can this really be considered charitable giving? Presumably, this is much closer to a quid pro quo relationship — the school, I imagine, strongly encourages parents to donate additional money to the school. Might those parents donate expecting special or different teacher? Might the school have incentives for treating the students of donors differently than those who merely pay tuition?
I’m not impugning the President’s motives here, but his public tax returns give us an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to someone’s tax returns other than our own. Consider that the President and First Lady gave as much money to Sidwell Friends as to any other charity, save the Fisher House Foundation (an excellent organization that runs comfort homes for military and VA hospitals). Does an elite private school really deserve an extra $5,000? Does an Ivy League university? And more importantly, should the American taxpayer be partially financing these types of donations?
We have a system that encourages charitable giving, but does not interrogate closely the reasons or purposes of the charities themselves. As a result, non-profit organizations and charities can easily serve as tax shelters to fund trips, meals, and other expenses for their operators.
The charitable deduction is not necessarily a way of funding charities; it is definitely a way to subsidize (mostly) the rich to make decisions about investments they wish to make. After all, only the rich benefit substantially from the itemized deduction; those of us taking the standard deduction (about 70% of taxpayers) don’t deduct much for our charitable donations. Should we really allow people to deduct for donating to, say, the opera (an organization that overwhelmingly benefits the rich)? The Center for American Progress or the Federalist Society (essentially political advocacy organizations)? Churches and other religious organizations? A private dinner club?
Again, I’m not saying that giving to charity is bad; I myself donate to charities. But, we do need to think more about why we subsidize charities and the outcomes that those subsidies create. Are we OK with subsidizing the ability of the rich to give money to organizations they like? Are the bad outcomes (such as non-profit bloat, fraudulent organizations, tax shelters, and charities that benefit the rich and privileged, etc.) worth the good ones (such as civic participation, communitarian values, market-driven donations, and charities that benefit the poor and underprivileged)? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s important that we ask them rather than act as if the charitable deduction must be a universal positive.
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