The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Giving Tuesday can’t fix the damage Trump’s tax 'reform’ did to charities

President Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Last year’s Giving Tuesday was hailed as a resounding success. In the United States, more than $400 million was raised for charitable causes in a 24-hour period. The average donation was $105. It sounds great — and, on one important level, it is great. Giving money to charity is good!

But there’s a problem: Despite Giving Tuesday and despite all the charitable appeals that almost certainly landed in inboxes, charitable donations by individuals declined by slightly more than 1 percent in 2018, according to figures released this year by Giving USA. One likely culprit? The Republican and Trump tax “reform” package of 2017. The rich got richer, while many charities took it on the nose.

Let me be clear: Overall charitable giving was up slightly, driven by foundation grants and an increase in donations in excess of $1,000. So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the wealthy often donate to major arts, medical and educational institutions, and those sorts of gifts often come with prestige attached, or perhaps, a non-monetary favor in kind — a favorable look at one’s child in the college admissions office or special treatment when admitted to the hospital.

Lower- and middle-income folks, on the other hand, are more likely to give their limited funds to nearby institutions meeting local needs — such as feeding and housing the poor. And that’s where the real pain is being felt. The Post’s Hannah Natanson recently went out and spoke with workers at a few such outfits, and the picture was dire. The Virginia Peninsula Foodbank is experiencing an "unprecedented” dip. The Bea Gaddy Family Center in Baltimore reports a 50 percent decline in donations. “I’ve never seen a dip like this,” said Cynthia Brooks, the organization’s executive director.

True, charitable giving by the middle class has been slowly decreasing for some time. The economy and increased inequality are almost certainly factors, but changing trends in giving are also an explanation. The vast majority of Americans do not have an infinite pot of money. Every personal GoFundMe responded to, every political candidate who gets a $20 donation, likely means some official charity is going without.

But this sudden dip in what is otherwise a reportedly decent economy leaves many pointing the finger at President Trump’s tax cut. When the standard deduction doubled, it eliminated the need for many people to itemize their tax return. The Tax Policy Center estimates that the number of filers itemizing their returns fell from 46 million to 19 million. The change in the law made tax filing easier for many middle-income filers, but it also suddenly eliminated a major incentive to give to charity. If you don’t itemize, you can’t take the charitable deduction.

Republicans like to promote individual charity as a solution to complex social and economic problems. It was a Republican president — George H.W. Bush — who used the phrase “a thousand points of light” to describe how Americans’ participation in civic and charitable organizations made the United States unique. But it turns out that one doesn’t need to be Trump, who illegally used a charitable foundation as a piggy bank, or a reputation-washing billionaire to see charity through a personal prism.

So what to do now? In the short run, remember the local organizations in your communities this Giving Tuesday and through the remainder of the year. They need financial help more than ever. In the long run, I’d suggest buttressing the social safety net, and taking aggressive steps to reduce inequality, so that more people can give while fewer have to depend on charity.

Read more:

Tonia Wellons: Charitable giving in D.C. is well below the national average

Ken Stern: Five myths about charitable giving