What, if any, is the practical reach of the private charity in solving societal problems?

Rand Rover made an interesting statement in another thread; I wanted to bring it up here because it’s key behind many conservative/libertarian arguments against government involvement in a wide range of problems:

(Emphasis mine.)

To what extent can private charities handle societal problems like poverty, homelessness, hunger, health care, etc.? How well do current charitable successes translate to other societal problems? How does one tell/draw the line in determining whether one belongs in the “charity” column or not?

Not well at all, judging by history. The whole reason the government stepped in, is that private charity wasn’t getting the job done. I see no reason to think that private charities have suddenly gained the ability to do something that they failed miserably at for centuries. Even now, with government picking up some of the slack many people suffer major deprivation; if private charities can’t even fill in the cracks, they certainly can’t do the whole job.

Another problem is that in a time of general economic crisis like now people’s need for help will go up, while their ability to help one another will go down.

And of course there’s the problem that the same ideologies that hate private charity, tend to hate the idea of helping people at all. If society became dominated by the libertarian worldview to the point that government assistance was eliminated, I’d also expect private giving to drop like a rock. I’d expect exploitation and abuse much more than charity towards the poor in such a society. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

A society dedicated to the glorification of the wealthy and powerful, and to the hatred of the poor and powerless, isn’t a society that will have much in the way of charity; and what “charity” there is will likely largely be an exercise in self righteous sadism like the old workhouses.

I think that suggesting that a private charity could provide UHC is pushing it just a tad.

That said, people are incredibly generous when confronted with a need.

Charities function like tourniquets for societal ills; they can mitigate the sheer destructive force of the problem for a while but they can’t cure it. All they can do is keep the problem temporarily at bay, hopefully until someone (usually a government of some sort) can provide a more permanent solution.

People are generous for emergencies requiring immediate redress. Ask them to keep supporting the effort month after month, year after year, and that generosity drops off steeply.

I would say they obviously provide some short term benefit. There is probably more success among the charities trying to raise funds for some specific disease or event. In terms of solving society problems like poverty, hunger or health care, I would say not at all. These are structural problems in society. Poverty isn’t just people not having money. It is about not having access to the resources needed to pull themselves out of poverty. Poor communities are poor because they are not self-sustaining. They become a vicious circle where anyone who could rise to a position where they would bring revenue into the community, leaves for a better community.

It depends on the need.

A sudden disaster? Sure, you’ll get lots of donations towards that, less so but still considerable if it’s on the other side of the world. A sustained, but easy to “sell” cause? Sure, but less so. A sustained but difficult to sell cause? Very little.

If tomorrow we said, alright, no more taxes towards societal problems, it’s purely a matter of your own choice to give to whatever you feel is the best cause, we’d have a lot less overall, and it would likely not be in particularly impressive proportions (i’d guess at least a third of it would be for animal charities of some kind). If charity could provide instead of taxing, then i’d be all for it. But I am cynical enough to think that if you made giving more individually controlled, that it would decrease sharply.

However, that said, there are areas where private charities may well be better. In terms of more localised issues, they’re probably superior at getting money or help where it needs to go. And people involved with a charity organisation are likely to be more emotionally involved in it, as opposed to someone in government who won’t, necessarily.

Very true, but it doesn’t necessarily disappear. It depends upon the activity of the fund-raisers. Witness the RNLI, the Poppy Appeal, and many more.

I work for a charitable organization that focuses on addressing poverty and hunger at a local level. The organization is located in a primarily affluent area within a city where many city residents are struggling with poverty. I have a sense of how the local community contributes financially and through volunteer work with local charitable organizations.

It’s my opinion that at least for poverty and hunger, private charities can only serve as a supplement to government-run programs. In today’s US society, if you gave everyone an X percentage cut in their taxes and said, “please consider donating this money to a private charity - if you don’t, thousands of children in your city will go without dinner tonight,” (or some similar message), people will use some of this “found money” to make donations, but they will keep most of the money for themselves. They will rationalize this by thinking that their own children come first, and that corporations and “rich people” should do the bulk of the work in supporting charities. They would keep most of the money for themselves because, for the most part, they would be unable to comprehend how someone could come to be in a circumstance where they can’t feed their own kids or put a roof over their head, and even if they could comprehend it, they would say “why is that my problem?” and “WTF, why do those people have kids anyway?”. Private charities can and do accomplish a lot of good, but I don’t think our society can address poverty in any meaningful way by relying on our citizens to help the less fortunate simply out of the goodness of their own hearts.

I wanted to add that I think US citizens would be even less likely to voluntarily donate to private charities in order to cover someone else’s health care costs (as opposed to donating towards hunger or homelessness or poverty).

private organizations can do, in theory, a great deal and they can do it much cheaper, better and faster than the government. EXCEPT, they cannot do squat when government is actively preventing / restricting / limiting / outright destroying them. Notice the zoning regulations, for instance - they severely restrict ability of private organizations to build cheaper, denser housing, but the government itself can usually override them when it feels like it. Meanwhile, if the government decides to build some section 8 housing full of ex-felons in your neighborhood, zoning regulations usually wouldn’t stop them.

So there you have it - a playing field is massively unequal. The government can do what it wants, and private organizations can muddle through fighting tooth and nail to get anything done. And when they fail because of that, the big government party will celebrate and say, see, the private sector failed! Let’s have an even bigger government.

While that is often stated as an article of faith, I see no reason to buy it. Government is better at some things; private organizations at others.

Or they can fail to solve problems for centuries, until finally government steps in. That is why government aid exists in the first place; private charity failed, failed badly, and has done so for as long as there has been history.

And, unlike the government they can pick and choose the people to help to make themselves look better; the same principle behind private schools being “better” than public schools. If you get to pick the cream, the easiest tasks and hand off the problematic cases to the government, of course government will look less effective. They are doing a harder job.

Many people here are answering a different question than the OP asked–he asked whther charities COULD, not whether they WOULD. The answer to the question he asked is “of course”–if the government can do something then there is absolutely no reason to assume that the private sector could not also do it. a charity could very easily offer UHC to people in specified groups (ranging from its members to people living in a particular place to an ethnic group to anybody and everybody).

I happen to think that private sector solutions are preferable because of (1) the practical problems associated with increasing taxes to fund social programs (ie, its a drain on the economy) and (2) because I think that the government’s use of force to redistribute wealth is not justified.

Perhaps, but not on as big a scale.

That’s the key problem with private over public services, I think, is scale. The smaller the scope, the more effectively people can govern and watch out for themselves and their neighbors. But the further you travel outside the monkeysphere, especially when you reach state and national level, the more you need government involvement, especially when it comes to causes that people can’t be arsed to donate to but can’t be ignored.

It’s the difference between being successful and lending money or a place to stay to your buddy who just lost his job and can’t pay for his house in the time it takes to find a new job, and lending money or a place to stay to some random guy who lost his job but has no well-off friends. You’re just not going to do as much, if anything, for the latter, even though he needs it just as much, and society would benefit just as much from his re-employment, as your buddy who happens to be connected to you.

The two go together. After all, Obama “could” solve all war and conflict by making a speech asking people all over the world to be nice to each other; but people won’t do that, so “can’t” and “won’t” are in effect the same in such scenarios.

Of course there is ; resources and motivation. Private organizations lack one or the other.

Then it wouldn’t be “universal” health care.

Why is it a drain on the economy for the government to do it, but not for a private organization? Government cooties?

And the alternative to government run redistribution in the long run is general social breakdown as more and more wealth becomes concentrated at the top. When the majority of the population is poor, hopeless and has no reason to be loyal to the country things go to hell.

I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to make between “could” and “would” here. Are you conceding that it wouldn’t really happen (e.g., charities wouldn’t have the funds to implement UHC), but that’s OK with you as long as it would be possible for charities to fund UHC in some hypothetical universe that will never exist?

I think they both work together. The government helps supply food banks which are then used to stock food pantries and given out by volunteers. Food is donated privately but not enough to supply all the pantries.

Since the private charities know the states needs they can write grants for the things needed and in what amount.

This is a chart that breaks down state by state what the needs of the poor are. Click on the topic and then as you run over each state a number comes up and in the corner is a break down of how bad the need is.


No, he asked about the practical reach. In other words, what they would realistically do, not what they could do in an idealistic world. So…yeah. You’re wrong about that.

Incidentally, I agree that in manic pixie dream land, private charities could indeed offer UHC, but I think from a practical standpoint it is very unlikely they would actually do it.