The Causes of Volunteering
July 2, 2000
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Perhaps one of the single most ridiculous statements ever to be made in print is contained in the cover story of this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. "Government spending causes volunteering," the article quotes an economist as contending.
Think about this statement for a moment and you'll realize, if you haven't already, just how absurd it is; private charity and altruistic volunteerism have in fact existed since biblical times, long before the notion of "government spending." It's a measure of just where this magazine article is coming from that the economist's statement is quoted in the Times without a hint of irony, as a kind of authoritative buttressing of the argument being made by the author.
The cover line touts the article as an explanation of "why volunteerism doesn't work." The text of the article takes one example -- the author's efforts to help some of her poor former students -- and makes the failings of her efforts into a claim that only the government, not private individuals, can help the poor. "What my kids really need, I can't give them: better housing, less crowded schools, access to affordable health care, a less punitive juvenile justice system, and for their parents, better child care (so they can work without leaving their kids unattended) and a living wage," the author writes.
In truth, it is possible to glean from the facts contained in the article another possible reason the author's former students are in such dire straits. That reason has little to do with the degree of crowding in the schools or the degree of punitiveness in the juvenile justice system and much to do with the students' fathers, or their lack of them. One student's father "has struggled with drugs" and "started stealing from the family." The father of a second student "had recently been released from jail" and soon thereafter "stole every item in the apartment." A third student lives "with his mother and his younger brother." A fourth student's parents have died, and he "was being reared by a disabled grandmother."
Why the absent fathers? Well, there's no way to tell for sure, but it's worth noting -- the Times Magazine doesn't -- that these children were born at a time when the government's welfare policy incentivized single motherhood by paying fatherless families more in government aid than those with able-bodied males. They were also born at a time when attempts to enforce child-support payments from so-called "deadbeat dads" were far less developed than they are now.
Two final absurdities in this magazine article: The first is the author's attempt to extrapolate from her own difficulties the conclusion that all volunteer-based programs aren't as good as government ones. She doesn't even consider the work done by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, by YMCAs and YWCAs, by Boys Clubs and Girls Clubs, by Alcoholics Anonymous. All of those groups have established records of success by building on years of collective experience, unlike the author, who improvised her own program of weekend activities for children.
The second is the author's references to "reductions in government aid to the poor" and to "Reagan-era cutbacks in social spending," which have been continued, the article claims, "by the current Democratic administration." These "cutbacks" are entirely imaginary. As welfare expert Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation put it in a 1996 paper: "Total welfare spending was $199 billion in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president. By 1988, his last year in office, welfare spending reached $230 billion...Ronald Reagan did not reduce welfare spending; he merely slowed its explosive growth rate." Measuring welfare spending another way, two other Heritage experts writing in a different policy paper describe the situation in the past decade: "despite the administration's commitment to 'end welfare as we know it,' inflation-adjusted federal spending for means-tested entitlements grew from $101.8 billion in FY 1990 to $184.9 billion in FY 1999, an increase of 81.6 percent in less than one decade." The "FY" refers to "fiscal year."
More Mythical Reductions: The chimerical cutbacks in welfare spending aren't the only nonexistent reductions the Times is offering up this morning. An article on the front page of the Sunday Styles section reports that more physicians are seeking publicity for themselves because they are "faced with shrinking incomes in the age of managed care."
Well, the news hasn't apparently reached the editors at the Times, but, in fact, physicians' incomes are "shrinking" at about the rate that welfare spending experienced "cutbacks" during the Reagan administration: That is, not at all. As The Washington Post reported in December of 1998, "Despite the advent of managed care, the growth of doctors' income has far outstripped that of the typical American worker in recent years, according to data published by the American Medical Association and the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis shows that doctors' net income grew by nearly 80 percent from 1985 to 1996, a period in which the median income for all Americans grew by just over 40 percent." More recent data reported in the trade magazine Managed Care shows that doctors with more than 50 percent of their patients in managed care plans actually experienced greater increases in their income than did those who operated on a fee-for-service basis.
More Loveable Criminals: As if the June 21 arts section dispatch about the death row exhibit wasn't enough, the Times national report today offers up another installment in the newspaper's informal series depicting convicted felons as joyful, loving family men. In an article on a visitation program for inmates at a Youngstown, Ohio prison, the Times dwells on images of the convicts "free to exchange hugs with their children." One prisoner and his son are described "lolling and smiling, the two might as well have been fishing on a lake." While we are told that some of the inmates were convicted of "assault," we don't hear about the details of the crimes or get to hear what the victims of the crimes think about these new visitation privileges.
In general, corrections officials try to avoid re-hashing in the press the details of a prisoner's crime -- it's considered bad for rehabilitation, because it can reinforce the image of the inmate as an inherently evil person and create a culture within the prison of bragging about the gory details of crimes. Still, in fairness to the victims of the crimes and to their families, it seems that the Times story could have used a phrase or two depicting these inmates as something other than simply loving fathers.
Improvement? Get this, from an article in the Week in Review section on the prevalence of skimpy clothing on women this summer: "It's a shame that plunging necklines and ascending midriffs have become identified with pornographic fantasies, because they do reflect an improved reality. Women of all sizes, shapes and ages wear the tie-backs and halters once seen only on the young and slim, partly thanks to better self-image and the increased acceptance of different body types. Designers have even made tube tops for the visibly pregnant."
Well, this may the point at which taste diverges from fashion, and smartertimes.com, which usually devotes itself to graver public policy concerns than trends in womenswear, realizes it's stepping onto dangerous ground here. We'll stipulate that, by us, pregnant women get a pass to wear whatever they want. Still, we thought there was a consensus among civilized New Yorkers that women beyond a certain size and age are better off avoiding "tie-backs," "halters" and "tube tops," just as men beyond a certain size and age ought to forgo muscle shirts and skin-tight Lycra bicycle shorts. The Times apparently considers the end of these taboos to be "an improved reality." We're not entirely convinced.
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