Do Charitable Organizations Reflect a Failure of Government?

begging hands
Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

I'll admit that some of the views I am about to express are highly conflicted. I feel an odd mixture of shame and anger even in entertaining some of these thoughts. I'm writing this because I am worried I must be missing something that may be obvious to everyone else. If so, please feel free to set me straight. I may learn something.

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 our government. I remember watching footage of President Obama visiting the New York offices of the Red Cross and wondering why a country as wealthy as the U.S. would need aid from the Red Cross at all. I have had the same thought when watching charities spring into action after every natural disaster. Isn't our government supposed to take care of the people it claims to represent, or would that make us the "nanny state" on which so many Republicans seem to be fixated?

The presence of church-affiliated soup kitchens and homeless shelters raises similar questions. Why is a secular democracy trusting these important efforts to religious organizations? If these aren't core government functions, then what are? Do we really believe that churches are somehow capable of providing these services better than our local, state, and federal government, especially if some of those in need of services are not religious? Can we be so unwilling to provide basic public assistance to our neighbors that we'd rather pawn it off on religious organizations?

Many charities exist, in part, to fund medical research on various diseases. Why is our federal government not providing adequate funding for medical research? Shouldn't the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have the budgets to do this? Why are these organizations not receiving adequate funding from our government? Too many people are forced to rely on charities for HIV/AIDS or cancer research. Does the government not have a responsibility here?

To be clear, I'm not saying that charitable organizations are unnecessary or that we should not support them. I think it is painfully obvious that they are necessary and that they need our support because our government is unwilling to perform so much of what should be its job. We shouldn't have to rely on these charities. Since we clearly do, we need to support them while demanding that they are accountable for the services they do provide in much the same way government agencies would be (e.g., no religious discrimination).

Some will undoubtedly claim that our country cannot afford the expenditures covered by these charitable groups. I disagree. I think we could afford it but choose not to. We could raise taxes a bit, cut unnecessary defense spending at the federal level, and allocate our resources differently. In fact, I am reasonably confident that we would do all these things if caring for our citizens was a bigger priority than it seems to be.

Am I just calling for bigger government? I'm not sure it necessarily has to be much larger, but I'd like to see it operate more efficiently and pursue a very different agenda. But yes, if having a somewhat larger government would allow us to take better care of our citizens instead of counting on the churches to do so, then I would support that. As an atheist who has been treated poorly by a number of Christians in positions of power, I'd like to avoid having to depend on their generosity in times of dire need.

Realistically, some charitable organizations are always going to be necessary. There are a number of less essential 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 improving the health and well being of those living within our borders. The fact that it refuses to do so strikes me as a failure, a failure of government and a failure on our part to insist on a more humanistic set of priorities.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2012. It was revised in 2022 to improve clarity.