Michelle Singletary’s syndicated column, which appears in the Miami Hurled, originates in the Washington Post. On Sunday she wrote about charitable giving and tax deductions. Her reasoning reflects a real dumb mistake that is often voiced by people with comfortable incomes:
Would we give less if we didn’t have the tax deduction? I’m confident we wouldn’t. We give because we believe it’s the right thing to do for folks who are fortunate enough to have money to give. Having the tax deduction is a bonus, but one that has never driven us to give more or less. I’m actually a bit turned off when a charity tries to persuade us to give by overly emphasizing the standard phrase, “Your donation is tax deductible.” — Washington Post
Let’s be perfectly transparent right up front: were it not for the deduction provided by IRS regulations, charitable giving in this country would plummet, and reflect the level of charitable giving in every other country — dismal, tiny, and ineffective.
As a career non-profit executive (with the 3-digit bank account to prove it), I also wonder precisely which charities she means when she complains about those that “overly emphasize” the tax deduction. I don’t know of any that do any more that provide the 1-line statement.
The fact is, the tax deduction makes American philanthropy viable, the envy of the world. Remove that option, which is one of many proposals currently under review as BHO and John Boner position themselves and their parties for budget negotiations, and kiss good-bye support for such philanthropic endeavors as the arts, the environment, education, and civil rights. Is this a better system, a better world, a finer outcome?
She goes on:
…..33% of donors said they would reduce their giving if the charitable deduction didn’t exist. The figure climbed among key giving groups, with 40 percent of donors ages 40 to 59 saying they would reduce their giving….I find that statistic shameful. You should give with no expectation of a reward if it’s truly a selfless act.
Shameful, she says. Shameful. Here’s the faulty reasoning behind that elitist attitude.
First, she assumes that donors taking advantage of the deduction could afford to do so without it. So that anybody who contributes $100 or $1,000 to the Elves Gnomes Leprechauns Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society could do so even if he or she couldn’t deduct that amount from their gross income. Sorry, Michelle, that’s not how it works out here in the real world. If people need that cash to pay their taxes instead of supporting their favorite charity, they’re going to pay their taxes. That’s the law.
Second, she makes the mistake of reasoning that a necessary condition is the same as a sufficient condition. People aren’t giving to charity because they get a deduction, they’re giving because the deduction makes it possible for them to do so. While their motives are pure, it’s because of the law that they can act on them. The pragmatism that underlies their reasoning makes their action no less a “selfless act.”
Finally — and perhaps I’m just being nasty here (which is what you’ve all been waiting for) — let’s look at the writer’s tithing. Is it truly “selfless devotion” that motivates her tithing to her church? Does she believe in an after-life, when her soul is evaluated for her earthbound conduct and spirituality, and that giving to charity is a way to ensure her Eternal Bliss? Perhaps her own charitable activity is nothing more than an investment to ensure the happiness of her ultimate reward, which would be as selfish and shameless as the tax-conscious contributions she condemns.
I’m all about charitable giving, and I don’t give a shit why you support your favorite charity. Just do it. You’re doing a world of good no matter how big an asshole you are, which is as good a trade-off as anybody can ever hope for.