Nonprofits and charitable giving are keys to my success

My story is not one of a self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. It is a story of caring individuals and communities giving selflessly to raise, motivate and educate a child. 

Because of what’s happening in Washington, D.C., I fear that stories like mine will no longer be possible.

My three siblings and I were raised by our single mother and our grandparents in upstate New York. My mother always worked multiple jobs, but we still had a hard time making ends meet. When we ran out of food we used food stamps to buy groceries. When that wasn't enough, we relied on the support of food banks. When we had no place to live, we stayed in a homeless shelter. 

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Caring teachers saw what I was capable of becoming. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Cornell University, but struggled to pay for my college education through a combination of three part-time jobs and federal grants. When that wasn’t enough, I applied for scholarships provided by generous donors. 

Now, as mayor of Ithaca, New York, I live and work in the county with the lowest unemployment rate in the state. Our nonprofit institutions of higher education - Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins-Cortland Community College - pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, provide more than 10,000 jobs, partner with our private industries and help cultivate new business ventures. Each year, through programs supported in large part by private contributions, these institutions educate some 30,000 bright, creative and energetic students who volunteer at our human service agencies, cultural organizations and schools. A large number of those students work, get federal aid and receive scholarships and fellowships funded through charitable giving.

I’ve been the beneficiary of wise, proactive and energetic government programs. But I’m also aware that my life - and the life of our city - is made possible because every-day Americans give generously to charitable programs. Government simply cannot do it all.

Millions of people throughout America depend on a vital infrastructure of highly effective, compassionate organizations that provide jobs, economic development, health care, food, shelter and so much more. 

That’s why I am particularly concerned that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are seriously considering upending the charitable tax deduction as they work to reduce the deficit and reform America’s tax code. Later this month, hundreds of charitable sector leaders and members of the Charitable Giving Coalition, will gather on Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers that limits on the charitable deduction amount to a dangerous game of Jenga. Tampering with this 100-year-old American tradition would set off a cascade of consequences, devastating the nonprofit sector on which millions rely for jobs, support and services.

I know firsthand that such a move would be disastrous for the millions of individuals and the thousands of communities that rely on the support of nonprofit programs and services. It would put at risk billions of dollars in private donations for these worthy causes. For every $1 donors get in tax relief for their contributions, the public typically receives $3 of benefit. That’s a better return on investment than most government programs.

Americans of all income levels give to causes they care about - a selfless act at the heart of our country’s belief in helping others and improving our communities.

For those who believe the charitable deduction is a loophole for wealthy donors, I urge them to take a closer look. It is not about the donors. It’s about people like me who are allowed to realize their full potential with the support generous donors provide. And because these donors are closer to the ground, they often understand the needs of a local community better than the state or federal government.

Consider Ithaca’s Family Reading Partnership, an early childhood literacy program whose $520,000 annual budget comes entirely from private individual, business and foundation donors. Because of their voluntary gifts, the Family Reading Partnership has been able to touch the lives of every family with young children in Tompkins County. More than 300,000 free books have been given to families before and at the birth of their children at doctors’ offices, schools and nearly 40 local Bright Red Bookshelf locations. An additional 100,000 books have been distributed through community partners as diverse as Cayuga Medical Center, the Refugee Resettlement Program and WIC. Why jeopardize a child’s early joy in books and reading by threatening charitable giving incentives?

That’s just one example, and there are countless others throughout America’s communities.  

Perseverance, determination, and hard work are still the building blocks of success in America. But what makes our country strong is the fact that when families fall we catch them. We give them a fighting chance.

Every day, millions of families like mine are performing heroic feats in making ends meet and finding opportunities to get ahead. But they aren’t doing it on their own. In every community in this country they’re doing it with the assistance of nonprofits and the donors who support them.

Myrick is mayor of Ithaca, N.Y. At 26, is the youngest person ever elected to hold that office.