My views on this subject are highly conflicted, and I'm writing this because I am worried that I'm missing something that is obvious to everyone else. So please feel free to set me straight.
Here's my thesis: the nature and prevalence of charitable organizations in the U.S. reflects a serious failure in what should be a core part of the mission of government. When I saw the footage of President Obama visiting the New York offices of the Red Cross recently, I found myself wondering why a country as wealthy as the U.S. would need aid from the Red Cross at all. I understand perfectly well why an organization like this is needed in many parts of the world. But isn't our government supposed to take care of the people it claims to represent (or would that make us the "nanny state" Republicans are always complaining about)?
The presence of church-affiliated soup kitchens and homeless shelters raises the same question. Why are these important efforts being entrusted to religious organizations? Is this not a core government function? Do we really believe that churches are somehow capable of doing this better than our government? Why are we so unwilling to provide public assistance to our neighbors that we'd rather pawn this off on religious organizations?
Many charities exist, in part, to fund medical research on various diseases. This is great, but once again, I find myself wondering why our government is not providing adequate funding in the first place. The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are not receiving adequate funding from our government. But why are we content to fund HIV/AIDS or cancer research with charitable donations? Does the government not have a duty here to support medical research?
I'm not saying that charitable organizations are unnecessary or that we should not support them. Far from it. I support many of them myself. What I am suggesting is that it is unfortunate that so many of them seem to be necessary. It makes me wonder why our government is not more interested in domestic matters.
I realize that an obvious answer to my questions is that our government cannot afford the expenditures covered by all these charitable groups. Well, that's true. As long as they are unwilling to raise taxes, stop invading other nations, or cut unnecessary defense spending, they cannot afford it. But this simply shows that taking care of its citizens is not a priority of the sort of government we have.
I also realize that some will object that I am simply calling for bigger government. I'm not sure that's true. I'd like to see a more efficient government, focused on a different set of priorities. I'm not sure if that necessarily means that it needs to be larger. It may be more about reallocating resources and personnel. But if having a somewhat larger government would allow us to take better care of our citizens, then I would support that.
Some charitable organizations are always going to be necessary. There are a number of causes where it would be difficult to argue for a larger government role. At the same time, it would be nice if our government was truly committed to action to improve the health and well being of those living within our borders as well as those outside them. The fact that our government refuses to do so strikes me as a failure.