Wednesday, November 14, 2001

The U.S. has suffered few more traumatizing events than the September 11 terrorist attacks. But the ongoing charitable groundswell demonstrates Americans’ deep compassionate impulse.

Despite the well-publicized failings of some charities, we can better tap this generosity in the future, to more fully meet the common human needs that are always with us.

Congress, motivated by political as well as humanitarian concerns, voted to cover everything from rescue to rebuilding in New York City. Legislators also established an open-ended victims’ compensation fund, with families of the dead and injured expected to take home as much as a million each.

There’s nothing unusual about federal aid to state and local governments. But the individual assistance package is quite different.

There is, after all, nothing compassionate about compulsory charity. Moreover, Washington’s exactions weren’t needed.

By the end of October people had given $1.13 billion extra to private groups. This outpouring came despite a spate of layoffs in the midst of a slowing economy.

As Philanthropy Roundtable President Adam Meyerson observes, the dramatic response “is what’s best about America we move fast and we’ve always been the most generous.”

The Red Cross alone collected about $505 million. A September television spectacular raised $150 million. Schoolchildren in Columbia, S.C., collected money to help New York City buy a new fire engine.

Chuck Robinson, a retired California fireman and avid fisherman, put out an internet appeal for fish to help feed New York rescue workers. In two days, 2,500 pounds of vacuum-packed fish were sitting in his yard.

Of course, America’s diverse, decentralized system is not without fault. The Red Cross has been criticized for setting aside some money for future disasters, instead of directing it all to the victims of September 11. Some people have received too little, while others may end up double- or triple- dipping.

However, politics is a poor substitute for compassionate giving. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is noted for its role as a congressional pork barrel, distributing money well beyond actual disaster areas, requiring little local contribution to reconstruction efforts, and funding gold-plated repairs.

Government attempts to “coordinate” private assistance are little better. In New York, the state attorney general and New York City mayor fought over who had primacy. Charitable groups feared having to “cooperate” with a government official who also regulated their activities.

Moreover, clusters of charities to aid firefighters’ families, provide scholarships for victims’ children, address the mental health needs of victims’ families and survivors have begun working together. Coordination advanced with creation of a common database, through the efforts of private accounting and computer firms, of terrorist victims.

In any case, the post-September 11 philanthropic gold rush should be the start, not the end, of increased giving. Although many major charities, such as the American Heart Association, say that their contributions remain unchanged, other groups suffered a sharp reduction.

One reason is undoubtedly the economy, which was slowing before the terrorist assault. However, some people obviously shifted their funds because of September 11. “The money just went away overnight,” worried Traci Felder of Cleveland’s Make-a-Wish Foundation a month after the attacks.

Yet pre-terrorist problems have not disappeared. Abundant private giving is particularly important because, as even government policymakers recognize, private organizations generally better meet human needs.

Nor is the answer increased government funding of private charities, as proposed by President George W. Bush. The decision on whom to give is itself an important aspect of every citizen’s obligation to others.

Voluntary sacrifice is what makes philanthropy a virtuous act. And only through increased private giving will it be possible to dismantle government programs that have inadvertently had so many adverse consequences discouraging work and disrupting families, for instance.

The government fund is especially problematic for this reason. Simply having public aid available may discourage future giving. Explains Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, “I’m really worried that, once it gets out that certain people are going to be getting large sums of money, people could get really turned off to charity and say ‘Forget it. Next disaster, I don’t want to help out.’ “

Some of those who rose to the challenge posed by September 11 recognize the need for more permanent private assistance. For instance, fisherman Mr. Robinson has created an organization, “Fish for America.” As he explains: “We’re realizing there’s a constant flow of fish that could be channeled to emergencies, disasters and soup kitchens.”

Americans are a generous people. Over the years, however, government has gradually taken over many charitable services once provided by civil society.

But the tragic events of September 11 offer the American people an opportunity to snatch back responsibility for their families, friends, and fellow citizens. They, not government officials, should be the ones immediately coming forward to care for those in need, whether victims of personal tragedy, bad economic times, or international terrorism.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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