Tamper with charitable deduction and communities lose

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Combine that with the fact that demands for services are already at an all-time high, and then throw in the potential rise in basic service needs brought on by sequestration, and America’s poorest citizens will be dealt a serious blow.

The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM), North America’s oldest and largest network of independent, faith-based crisis shelters and rehabilitation centers, is just one example of the thousands of nonprofits and community-level efforts that would be impacted. Every year, AGRM-member missions feed about 50 million meals, provide approximately 25 million nights of lodging, distribute more than 30 million articles of clothing, and graduate some 20 thousand people from addiction recovery programs.

Rescue missions don’t just work with those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder; they work with those who aren’t even on the ladder — those who have been ravaged by abuse, imprisoned by addiction, or set adrift because of mental illness. These are the people who traverse the sidewalks like zombies on patrol in neighborhoods most folks avoid. If the U.S. were India, we would be talking about the “untouchables.”

And here is a critical piece of information: Almost all of the income for North America’s rescue missions comes from private donation.

Should rescue missions be forced to drastically cut back their services or close altogether because tax-law changes erode or wash away individual contributions, the government would also lose. That’s because everything rescue missions do — feeding, sheltering, rehabilitating, counseling, life-skills training, job training, rehousing — would end up in the government’s lap. And with its black-hole debt, the government certainly can’t take this on. It doesn’t know how — and frankly shouldn’t attempt — to handle relational and spiritual poverty, which are keys to unlocking the prison doors of destitution for so many of our citizens.

As one member of Congress recently confided: “We can’t do what you do — and we shouldn’t try. We would totally mess it up. If the government tried to take over what rescue missions do, in no time it would be twice as expensive and half as effective.”

Lawmakers seem to have a unique knack for taking apart things that are working just fine to use the pieces to fix other things they’ve broken. I urge Congress to take former budget director Burt Lance’s advice: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The century-old incentive for charitable contributions is something that isn’t broken.

There is also a spiritual component to this whole issue that lawmakers would do well to understand. In the New Testament, Paul told Timothy, “teach those who are rich in this world to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will store up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.”

There are millions of Americans who are wonderful stewards of their money and God is blessing them. They are not the selfish rich who need to be vilified; they are kind people who love their neighbors as themselves — a partial quote from Jesus about which President Obama reminded us at the last National Prayer Breakfast. The more these people get, the more they give. The more they give, the more our communities benefit.

Sure, most of them deduct their contributions, but for every $1 a donor deducts, their “neighbors” receive as much as $3 of benefit. I, for one, thank God for those with means who use what has been entrusted to them to bless the poor. 

Congress needs to remember that it cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. And, Congress shouldn't get between donors and their religious convictions.

There are thousands of very bright people — from economists to corporate executives to community leaders — who are saying that service agencies like the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions will almost certainly be negatively affected if the government tampers with the charitable deduction. For the sake of our most vulnerable citizens — our poor and powerless invisible neighbors—lawmakers need to believe what’s being said.

Ashmen is president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.