Governments are better suited than charities to alleviate poverty, but can never replace – and must better support – the authentic community-building these organisations provide, Robin Brown writes.
People in some nations are more philanthropic than in others – that is, they give more money away.
This isn’t just about who is most generous. It’s a matter of the role of governments. For instance, while American citizens donate a lot more money than Swedes, citizens of Sweden pay much more tax on average than Americans.
In this comparison, rather than donating directly themselves, Swedish citizens vote for an approach to government that results in the same thing – their money going to help the less fortunate and build a better society. In the United States, and many other places, giving directly to support these things is more common.
The deeper difference is what ‘needs’ financial support in the community is determined collectively in Sweden and individually in the United States.
This is not superficial – especially when one of these approaches doesn’t seem to work very well.
A collective system lowers transaction costs, reduces the incentive for charities to spend on marketing themselves, and provides government resources to ensure the charities that benefit from the community’s donations are achieving their goals.
An individual system has none of these strengths. While its advocates can say that people should have a right to directly choose who benefits from their money, they cannot hide from its weaknesses.
Australia’s system is a funny mix of both. Individual donors elect to donate to a charity, but the government then uses collective funds to subsidise that choice by forgoing revenue on it. This is because all donations to designated charities in Australia are ‘tax-deductible’, meaning that any income an Australian earns, but then donates, is not counted as part of their taxable income, lowering their overall tax rate burden.
He has also made clear that the government will work to remove past constraints on charities lobbying for better policies for the sector.
This is an admirable goal. While governments are better suited than private charities to tackle systemic poverty issues, citizens, of their own volition, getting together to improve their community is crucial to a healthy society.
In Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, about three million live below the poverty line. While the government must increase support to tackle this, citizen-based organisations, or not-for-profits, are often better suited to helping communities directly.
Ensuring charities keep playing this supplementary role, and enabling them to lobby to do so better, solves a number of problems with charitable giving. It encourages citizens to contribute to their communities, while those in poverty are still entitled to the government support they need.
However, it does not solve everything. Australia’s tax-deductible donation system needs a rethink.
As it stands, every deductible dollar is worth the same. This means that when a dollar is donated to a wealthy private school to construct a luxurious building, the taxpayer subsidises it just as much as a donation to a charity doing crucial work with those living rough.
Under this system, any charity, no matter its specific values and goals, and whether they reflect the majority of the Australian community, is subsidised – just as long as it can qualify for tax-deductible status.
For one, this system means that Australians support international development in two capacities – as taxpayers directly via the government, and as donors.
But only eight per cent of charities provide aid to people outside Australia. Reforming Australia’s system could help it better assist developing countries, where a donated dollar can go much further when it comes to improving lives.
If the government does achieve its plan to double giving, it also needs to consider that the current system is not always sending resources to where they are most needed.
As it stands, the giving system is uncoordinated and blind to genuine public need – the personal preferences of donors entirely direct government subsidies.
The government needs to facilitate the meeting of the greatest needs by charities and ensure they have the resources to do the work they are best at. A system where one dollar given to a privileged private school or elite sporting club is subsidised just the same as one dollar given to a homelessness relief or to lift people out of poverty in the developing world isn’t capable of this – it needs change.