By Dr. Gary C. Lawrence
National Poll / N = 1000 Registered Voters
Conducted March 29 – April 7, 2010
The survey questions began, “Let’s say that your neighbor told you that he and his family do not have enough food to eat.” Then followed several statements to which respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement.
Nine out of ten Americans feel they have a moral obligation to help a neighbor who does not have enough food for his family.
Of those who feel this moral obligation, three in ten believe society has a duty to enforce it, while almost six in ten do not.
A majority believes government has a duty to provide food for this neighbor, but they do not believe government has the right to increase taxes to do so.
Four in ten believe that the neighbor has the right to demand that government help him, but only three in ten believe government should increase taxes so it can do so; two out of three do not want their taxes raised so their neighbor can be helped.
Just short of three in five Americans believe the federal government is doing too many things that are better left to individuals; about one in three feel the government should do more to solve problems and help people.
Voluntary charity is a solid American virtue, but the conditions of who is helped, when and how should not be dictated by government. If government provides food for a family, which Americans believe is proper if others do not step up, it should come from existing government funds, not from an increase in taxes. Americans believe government is already encroaching too much on activities best left to individual citizens and voluntary organizations.
Extensions and Consequences
America’s impulse to be charitable is alive and well, but government programs work against the incentive to act on that noble desire.
As other studies have pointed out, many Americans feel increasingly entitled to government largesse. In this regard, Roger Scruton notes the following facts of human behavior in the April issue of the American Spectator:
- “The proper response to a gift, even a gift of charity, is gratitude. People who feel gratitude also wish to express it. The easiest way is to give in one’s turn.”
- ”[T]he state is taking over many of the functions that were previously performed by charities.”
- Because “the state deals on impersonal and equal terms with its citizens, …charity is replaced by justice.”
- “But while charity deals in gifts, justice deals in rights. And when you receive what is yours by right you don’t feel grateful. … The spirit of gratitude retreats from the social experience….”
- “When gifts are replaced by rights, so is gratitude replaced by claims. And claims breed resentment.”
In essence, as government interferes with its citizens’ natural desire to help one another, two things are lost – a qualitative assessment of a person’s needs (some will need a handout and others a hand up), and the feeling of gratitude.
Faceless bureaucrats who run government entitlement programs deal only with quantitative criteria as they determine who gets what. If a person fits an impersonal Washington-created formula based on things that can be quantified, he is entitled. End of discussion. No room for a qualitative assessment.
Yet it is the qualitative assessment that makes local, person-to-person assistance so successful. People administering charity programs for voluntary organizations at the local level are more likely to know the recipients and can work a solution that goes beyond cold statistics. They consider additional factors and are more likely to know, for example, if the person is truly seeking a job or only going through the minimum motions needed to qualify under a government program. They are more likely to know if there are extenuating circumstances in the family that a government formula does not take into account. In short, voluntary organizations are more likely to know the real needs involved and are more skilled at uncovering scams.
But the second thing being lost is even more critical – gratitude. When people receive help from government, whom do they approach, look in the eye and say, “Thank you” in a heartfelt way? It doesn’t happen, at least not in the same way a person says thanks when he receives help from members of his own community who have built a charity service with their own money.
When a person receives help from a voluntary organization, he or she is more likely to perform an act of charity for someone else and a pass-it-on chain begins. When a person receives help from government, however, that’s the end of the chain reaction.
Gratitude is one of the natural glues that bind society together. If the glue goes, we go with it.
No surprises. Democrats and liberals contrast most starkly with Republicans and conservatives on the tax component of this issue. Although the total sample strongly opposes increasing taxes, a majority of Democrats and liberals favors that step. Regarding the moral component, the tilt toward government involvement is still apparent – while a solid majority of all Americans disagrees that society has a duty to enforce a moral obligation, the left is at best split on the issue.
Minorities, 18-34s, the West coast and lower income groups are above average in supporting the liberal pro-government positions, while those over 45, the South, Midwest and upper income groups are above average in support of individual independence.
Women show greater support for the majority positions where compassion, duty and the rights of government power are at issue. Men react more firmly where people demand charity from government and where the tax question goes beyond the right of government to raise taxes and the debate becomes whether government should raise taxes.
The percentage point differences between men and women:
Agree that they have moral obligation to help: women +6
Disagree that society has duty to enforce obligation: women +5
Agree that government has duty to provide: women +3
Disagree that the person has right to demand help: men +13
Disagree that government has right to raise taxes: women +2
Disagree that government should raise taxes: +7
This Audience Alliance Poll used random digit dialing to reach and complete interviews with 1000 self-identified registered voters on landlines and cell-phones, whether listed or unlisted. Interviews were conducted March 29 through April 7, 2010.
Statistically speaking, 95 times out of 100 the margin of error for a sample of this size is ± 3.1 percentage points for mid-range (40% to 60%) results. The margin of error is smaller for results larger than 60% and lower than 40%. A weighting formula based on age and party was applied to the data to conform to nationally known parameters.
As quoted in “Notable & Quotable”, Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2010.
Dr. Gary C. Lawrence is Director of Audience Alliance