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New York Times Room for Debate


More Independence, Greater Results

November 27, 2012

By Howard Husock

Private charity, as leaders of its major organizations have stressed since the first years of the Reagan administration (another time when cutbacks occurred), will not be able to provide dollar-for-dollar substitute financing for reductions in government social programs.

This does not mean, however, that such cuts should be ruled out. They may be inevitable. But neither does it mean that privately supported organizations cannot achieve the purposes of the government programs which are cut back.

It’s important, first, to acknowledge the fact there is a limited record of success in government social service programs. A long history of poor evaluations shows, for instance, that the the popular Head Start is a far better cause than it is a successful program. Government can be efficient in direct income distribution (writing checks) � as evidenced by such programs as Social Security and the earned income tax credit, which are effective on their own terms. (Not that they should be exempt from reform and adjustment.)

But privately financed efforts have an advantage in helping individuals with their own special situations. That’s because private philanthropy, even through smaller expenditures, can adapt to local conditions and be led by local champions who must show donors results. That diversity of approaches is something which one-size-fits-all federal programs inhibits.

Private efforts can, what’s more, be effective even when based on a volunteer model. If we had to choose between continuing the many state offices of drug and alcohol abuse prevention and preserving Alcoholics Anonymous� which receives no government money � there’s no doubt that A.A. is the better choice. Moreover, civic and religious groups can extend their influence by reinforcing social norms of positive behavior which themselves reduce the need for the sort of social programs which face cuts. Not everyone who is helped or influenced to improve habits or health must be a "client" enrolled in a program.

As for the accountability of private donors, the question is a fair one � and donors who are matching or influencing the spending of public money directly (as the Gates Foundation has done with New York’s small schools program) especially have an obligation to set goals and track results. Nonetheless, the history of Carnegie, Rockefeller and, lately, Gates, should provide reassurance that, those whom Mathew Bishop of The Economist has characterized as "hyperagents" do often know what they’re doing.

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