In any busy environment, whether a university, corporation, city or otherwise, the resources of money and especially time can be stretched very thin. Here and elsewhere it can be very easy for a person to be swept up in the daily routines of life and the personal concerns of the moment. Yet in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, we hear now, more than ever, a call to service, to charity, and to generosity.
The recovery efforts have clearly demonstrated that government alone cannot solve the problems we face. Instead, the volunteer efforts of thousands in New York and Washington, D.C., remind us of the positive difference that each individual can make, even with seemingly minor contributions. It is a wonderful example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And in the uncertainty of today, everyone has a part to play in service to others.
In answering this call to service, we must each take a fresh look at the resources we have at our disposal and consider how we put them to positive and productive use. Gifts of time, talent and money are the most obvious sacrifices that we can make.
And opportunities to give abound; numerous religious and secular organizations work to end hunger, homelessness, poverty and injustice in nearly every community. The urgency of responding to these opportunities was highlighted recently by President George W. Bush, who, reminiscent of his father’s call for each of us to serve as “points of light” through service and volunteerism, suggested in his State of the Union address that each American donate 4,000 hours of time over his or her lifetime to the service of others. This, certainly, is a noble undertaking as it recognizes that the gift of time — one of the most valued and limited commodities in anyone’s life — is an important source of progress.
Financial contributions are also vital to fueling charitable organizations, and as such, the government should take a more active role in creating incentives for donations to charity. Current tax deductions are useful in this regard, but a more aggressive plan would replace the deductions with tax credits, capped at some reasonable limit beyond which donations would be deductible, as is usually the case. This would encourage support for charities by allowing taxpayers to realize the full, dollar-for-dollar benefit of at least some part of their monetary gifts instead of saving only based their marginal tax rate.
When considering the benefits from increased giving of all sorts, it is important to note that generosity to charity has the potential to do more than increase a budget by the amount of money donated or expand the service by the number of hours given. Instead, charity has numerous positive externalities.
First, it helps to remove the dependence on government for transfers of wealth and instead offers alternative and usually more wholesome sources of support for the needy than a welfare check could provide. In addition, it reinforces the dignity and value of public service in a society that is increasingly self-centered. Finally, the act of charity itself helps not only the recipient but the giver as well, whose work and sacrifice is redemptive and provides a deeper appreciation of problems in the world, other than their own, worthy of being solved.
And so, as we begin the year, we are again reminded of the call to charity and service. It is a personal call to each one of us, especially those who are most blessed with gifts and resources. As a friend once suggested, “measure your generosity not by how much you give but by how much you keep.”
Will Edwards is a senior in Pierson College. His columns appear on alternate Mondays.