Politicians believe nonprofits can help the poor — but Americans don't

Politicians believe nonprofits can help the poor — but Americans don't
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As Texas and Florida climb out from the rubble of Harvey and Irma, it has been charitable organizations providing much of the aid. The CEO of a national association of community organizations estimated nonprofits, including faith-based groups, provide for 80 percent of the recovery. President Trump seems to agree with this sentiment and tweeted: “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”  

Whether or not these repayments go through will be addressed by FEMA (and the courts if faith-based organizations are involved), but a larger question must be asked: Should we rely so heavily on nonprofits to help those in need? Can we count on nonprofits to bear the responsibility for what could be a $200 billion recovery?


New survey results suggest that a large percentage of Republicans and Democrats say “no.” PRRI reports that eight in 10 Democrats and seven in 10 Republicans believe that “nonprofit and religious charities are not large enough to address all the needs of poor Americans.” In a time of deep partisan divide on many issues, this consensus says a lot.


Additionally, PRRI finds there is also wide agreement across respondents of different religious and ethnic groups. Approximately the same percentage of black Protestants (81 percent), white evangelical Protestants (79 percent), and Hispanic Catholics (79 percent) agree that nonprofits are not enough. Most with no religious affiliation also hold this view.

The issue is not obviously that the nonprofit sector is too small. Recent data suggests that nonprofits contribute $800 billion to the U.S. economy and pay $320 billion in wages.

Instead, it may be a false impression that this is enough. Recall, newly elected President George W. Bush’s first executive order was to create the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The executive order read: “Faith-based and other community organizations are indispensable in meeting the needs of poor Americans and distressed neighborhoods. Government cannot be replaced by such organizations, but it can and should welcome them as partners.”

A decade later, the Republican Party continued to anchor its strategy to combat poverty in local nonprofits. It was Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBottom line Ex-Trump chief of staff Priebus mulling Wisconsin governor bid In Marjorie Taylor Greene, a glimpse of the future MORE’s (R-Wis.) 2014 “Expanding Opportunities in America” proposal that argued: “For too long, the federal government has tried to supplant, and not to support, the people fighting poverty on the frontlines — families, neighborhoods, community groups.”

Republicans are hardly alone on this point. The importance of civic organizations and community-based groups runs throughout the newly-established Obama Foundation.

If this hope in how well nonprofits can solve our problems is overstated, support for the other options are equally worrisome. Though there are some partisan differences, a majority of respondents to the PRRI survey agree that government may not be up to the task. About two-thirds of Hispanic (65 percent), white (66 percent) and black Americans (70 percent) “agree the government too often helps the wrong people.” Two-thirds of Americans also believe government is wasteful and inefficient.

Maybe the public is wrong and nonprofits do have the capacity to address problems of the poor (probably not the case) and maybe the government is more efficient than it appears to most Americans (likely true). In either case, much more faith in institutions — nonprofit, governmental and for-profit businesses — is needed to provide for those currently recovering and those who will face similar circumstances during our next tragedy.

Heath Brown is assistant professor of Public Policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College and the CUNY Grad Center. He is the author of “Immigrants and Electoral Politics: Nonprofit Organizing in a Time of Demographic Change.”