Charity Should Begin in Congress
By George F. Will
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page B07
SAN DIEGO -- The Rev. Joe Carroll ministers daily to thousands of this city's destitute and disoriented. Yet he, and hence they, may soon have a tax problem created by Congress. If so, he and many other doers of good works will do fewer, cities nationwide will struggle to do more, and many vulnerable people will lose their tenuous grips on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
Carroll's St. Vincent de Paul Village is a bustling, no-nonsense, life-changing dispenser of compassionate conservatism. "The government," he tells those who come for help, "gives you civil rights. I give you my rules." Such as: Everyone works.
Some work in the kitchen that dispenses 4,000 meals a day (the village's freezer capacity is sufficient for when, say, Costco donates 100,000 pounds of meat) and has provided "graduates" to kitchens in some San Diego hotels. Other villagers work in a nearby commercial laundry that cleans the linen for the village's 855 beds, which are always full.
The children -- upward of 200 are usually in residence -- get public schooling on site. The separation-of-church-and-state fetishists have been mollified by Carroll's charging the school rent.
Homeless couples who have been together awhile and have had children are encouraged to marry, with Carroll presiding in the chapel. And most people are encouraged to tarry, not for just a month, as is usual in many shelters, but for as long as two years. Carroll says that people who stay only a month think only about where they will find their next bed. If they stay two years, his village can change their behavior.
And their teeth, which helps with behavior. The village's dental office is lined with before-and-after photographs of people who lost teeth to the violence and diet of street life, and who, before their smiles were restored, would have flunked any job interview on aesthetic grounds.
They are taught how to shake hands and how to dress -- there is a closet full of loaner suits for job interviews. They get glasses, high school equivalency diplomas, computer training and, thanks to the University of California at San Diego, there are 12 psychiatrists on site to try -- with the help of $300,000 worth of Prozac and other pharmaceuticals each year -- to undo the mental damage that homelessness causes. A local hospital estimates that Carroll's prenatal care saves it $250,000 a month by getting babies to term.
The village offers courses on anger management. And parenting, which involves anger management. Everyone receives instruction that, Carroll says, teaches them that "mom and dad did not mess you up, and neither did your siblings, the government or society." Which leaves? Accepting responsibility is a step toward recovering what is lost on the street -- personhood.
Of the village's $25 million budget, a quarter comes from various governments. Another quarter comes from donated cars. Which is why Carroll is worried about tax legislation gestating in Congress.
Charitable institutions nationwide raise many millions of dollars by having donated vehicles auctioned. In 2000, 733,000 taxpayers reduced their liability by about $654 million. Congress is dismayed -- too much so -- at the disparity between the valuation placed on a car by a donator (say, $5,000 -- the threshold above which an independent appraisal already is required) and the amount a charity may reap from auctioning it (say, $500).
A Senate bill would limit a donor's tax deduction to the amount the car sold for at auction. This would mean a long period when donors would not know the value of their gift -- a serious disincentive to donate. A House bill would require an independent appraisal of any car valued at more than $250, meaning all cars. The appraisal would be paid for by the donor and might cost more than the value of the tax deduction to the donor.
Why not simply require donors to reduce their tax liability by the Blue Book's well-calibrated assessment of vehicles' fair market values? Most will bring close to that when retailed after auction. Considering the bang for the buck from charities and the savings their good works mean for governments, the Senate and House bills are pound-foolish without even being penny-wise.
It takes a village to raise the fallen to their feet -- a village like Carroll's. And it takes various rivulets of donations. Were Congress to divert to the government's convenience a portion of one such stream -- one crucial to charities, but trivial in relation to federal revenue -- this would traduce the principle that government should empower, not hinder or supplant, civil society's ameliorative works.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company