Social safety net for the poor can’t be replaced with charity, new study shows

Opponents of the social safety net and government spending on resources for poor Americans consistently tout how, instead of “forcing” Americans to pay for these programs via their tax dollars, we should all just rely on the generosity of rich philanthropists to come to the rescue. Being forced to live at the mercy of rich people and their changing whims — what could possibly go wrong? According to one new study by researchers from Texas A&M University led by economist Jonathan Meer, only everything! Charity can’t replace the social safety net for a number of reasons, but let’s take a moment to explore the findings yielded by this particular study.

For starters, the Great Recession of 2008 had a staggering effect on donations to charities helping the poor, with total donations across the country dropping by 7 percent in 2008 and 6.2 percent in 2009, according to estimates by Stanford University. But rather than analyze national averages and figures, Meer and his team tracked the giving tendencies of 13,000 Americans since the Great Recession, studying data from the federal government’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. The study aimed to explain why the amount of donations made by Americans dropped by so much in 2008 and the following years, studying Americans whose incomes remained stable even through the 2008 economic crisis, but ceased to donate in spite of this.

Meer and his team note that Americans they studied became much less likely to donate after 2008, even with stable incomes, “suggesting that broader shifts in attitudes towards giving or increased uncertainty are at work.” At a time when poor Americans needed philanthropy most, the overarching economic crisis made saving appear wiser than giving and instilled fear in Americans once receptive to donating that they needed to take care of themselves first, which isn’t unreasonable.

Such has been the trend since 2008, which is why the study notes that the 2008 recession appears to have had serious, long-term effects on charity in America. In poor economic climates, Americans don’t simply reduce how much they give, but cease to give altogether, and through such difficult times, the government can’t reasonably ask poor Americans to rely on charity they won’t receive.

In many industrialized nations around the world, it’s commonly accepted that the government has obligations to its citizens, namely ensuring that they’re able to lead dignified lives. Arguably one way to help poor Americans even more than through donations would be to vote for measures that bolster social welfare programs, or vote for officials who share the view that the government has these obligations.

If the measure of any great nation is how it treats its most vulnerable, America will hardly be made “great again” if our Republican Congress opts to force low-income Americans to live their lives at the mercy of private individuals’ fickle generosity. Since electing Donald Trump, as well as a Republican Congress, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have received record-breaking numbers of donations, and that’s obviously wonderful. But it won’t offset the disastrous consequences that await as Republicans are in the best position in history to scale back the safety net.