Charities almost never have good evidence that what they want to spend money on is better than what poor people would choose to spend the money on if they just got the cash themselves. I certainly don’t trust myself to know what the world’s poorest people need most.
I’ve been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were in Jacklin’s shoes. Would I spend it on school fees? Maybe! Or maybe I’d use it to supplement my food budget. Or save for a new house. I really don’t know.
You know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people like Jacklin? Poor people like Jacklin. They have a very good idea of what they need. And you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do.
This is an article that appeared, in a couple of different forms, on previous versions of this blog. Since it critiques an opinion that’s become ‘common knowledge’ in some circles, I thought it would be good to repost it.
A few years ago, the image to the right started popping up on my Facebook feed. For those who can’t see images, here’s what it says: if churches paid taxes, it would generate enough revenue ($83.5 billion) to pay for the entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ($76 billion) and house everyone who is homeless.
The same concept later showed up in an article by Matthew Yglesias at Slate and, in turn, by Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog, who added material from an article by Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega titled “Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States”. Both of these posts were picked up by Steve Benen at Maddowblog’s “This Week in God”.
Yglesias’s argument is fairly general, and there’s something to be said for at least a part of it. Yglesias points out that “discussing moral action is at the heart of many religious enterprises,” and that “much moral action plays itself out in the arena of politics.” It is somewhat perverse – in a soft sense – that a religious organization can advocate on behalf of the poor, but not on behalf of a partisan political party or candidate who also advocates on behalf of the poor. Likewise, it is somewhat perverse that a religious organization can organize against abortion, but not endorse political candidates who would work to end abortion legislatively.
The same issue applies to other nonprofit organizations as well, of course. Environmental nonprofits can advocate and organize to save our wetlands, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would actually protect those wetlands; housing nonprofits can work to increase affordable housing, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would create affordable housing trust funds; hunger nonprofits can operate food banks, but cannot endorse candidates or parties who would protect SNAP; and so on. If Yglesias’s argument applies to religious organizations, then it applies to all organizations that work on issues that have partisan implications. Yglesias’s argument isn’t so much against tax-exemption for religious organizations as it’s an argument against tax-exempt status more broadly.
What I want to focus on in this short series, though, is not the broader issue of tax exemption overall. Rather, I want to focus on the article by Cragun, Yeager, and Vega, as the estimates in this article seem to form the basis for assertions about how much additional revenue the government would have if religious organizations were taxed and all of the things that the government would do with it. As Matthews writes, “they’re not exactly disinterested parties; their research appeared in Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.” However, I must disagree with Matthews’s assertion that “the data seems to check out.” The article by Cragun et al suffers from several major deficiencies:
- The authors use various ad hoc definitions of ‘charity’ that fit neither popular understandings or the term nor the broader legal framework within which nonprofit organizations exist; in fact, the article seems wholly ignorant of that larger framework.
- They make use of incongruous figures, using mixtures of absolute dollar amounts and percentages of revenue from different timeframes.
- They make use of surface-level research without digging deeper into figures that they cite, causing them to make some statements that are simply false.
- They make assumptions about the revenues of religious congregations that are (1) absurd on their face, (2) based on small samples, (3) and/or incompatible with other assumptions that they make in the article.
- They make estimates for various taxes using methods that we would not expect to yield accurate estimates.
I’ll take each of these on in greater detail below.
One final note before we dive into the article. Cragun et al refer repeatedly to the charitable status and subsidies that ‘religion’ enjoys or that ‘religions’ enjoy. ‘Religion’, of course, is an (often poorly defined) abstract concept, and abstract concepts – no matter how well defined – are neither given nonprofit status nor taxed. What Cragun et al are discussing in their article is not ‘religion’ or ‘religions’, but religious organizations. Moreover, they are not discussing all religious organizations – organizations that the authors consider both religious and predominantly charitable are not included – but a particular kind of religious organization: religious congregations. This is more or a pet peeve than anything else – the reification of religion often seems to lead to fuzzy thinking – but it is important to be clear about what we are discussing.