Have philanthropists lost sight of the poor?

Have conservatives, preoccupied with the worthy goal of limiting the size of government, lost sight of an equally important goal: strengthening civil society by directly helping low-income individuals? William Schambra explores that question in this piece re-printed in Philanthropy Daily:

Conservatives … argue for a smaller federal government. They do so because it would sustain not only a more vigorous marketplace but also a more robust civil society. Civil society, not government, is the best instrument to meet the needs of low-income people, in this view.

For poverty all too often results from the breakdown of the critical civic institutions like family, neighborhood, and voluntary associations that shelter and nurture the most vulnerable among us.

When big government begins to assume that function, conservatives argue, it only further erodes civil society, while doing a woefully inadequate job as a substitute.

But if this argument is valid, then conservative philanthropy should accompany its opposition to big government with a massive commitment to big civil society. That is, it should devote itself first and foremost to supporting and strengthening the nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people.

Yet conservatives frequently forget their responsibility for nurturing civil society.

Another argument for smaller government — that it will liberate the energies of entrepreneurial individuals within the marketplace, thereby producing greater wealth — tends instead to dominate conservative discourse.

That argument brings with it a formidable array of allies: wealthy individuals and corporations and their libertarian-leaning think tanks, journals, and activist nonprofits.

Civil society tends to disappear from the libertarian perspective, because once government is reduced, the marketplace can take care of the rest. There is no intermediate layer between oppressive state and free individual.

So philanthropy, in this view, needn’t be wasted on civil society. Rather, it should be devoted entirely to winning the intellectual and political battle for smaller government and freer markets by supporting activist nonprofits deeply engaged in electoral warfare.

This was the brand of conservatism fully on display in the 2012 election. No wonder a majority of the voters felt that conservatism cared only about the wealthy and not the vulnerable.

In the end, Schambra writes that conservative philanthropists have all-too-often lost site of the poor, instead focusing exclusively on the battle over public policy. But to achieve a robust civil society, private investments through humanitarian nonprofits should be given strong consideration.

So what about liberal progressives? Schambra has plenty of criticism for them, too. He accuses them of supporting a bloated federal bureaucracy that doesn’t meet the needs of the poor, instead spending most of its resources on “wealthy elderly Americans, powerful labor unions, well-paid government employees, and other distinctly non-poor constituencies that have powerful vested interests in federal and state spending.”

He writes:

Government today is big and getting ever bigger not because we’re spending more to meet the needs of the poorest among us. Rather, our bulging domestic budgets are increasingly devoted to Social Security and Medicare for the swelling ranks of the elderly, many of whom are by no means poor; to interest on a rapidly growing public debt; and to massive retirement and health-care benefits for government employees.