The Compassion Gap



Today I got a voice mail message from a local corporate foundation. It said they were very interested in funding the grant proposal I submitted, and that they wanted to do a site visit to check the organization out, talk to staff, and so on. Well, in the last year I have applied to this foundation twice, on behalf of two different organizations. The woman didn’t say which organization she wanted to visit, but I correctly guessed the answer. Let’s see if you can guess.


Organization 1 serves homeless people. It offers shelter and food and some other services. Some of the clients have significant issues with physical and mental health and with drug addiction. The clients are women and their children.


Organization 2 serves homeless people. It offers shelter and food and some other services. The clients have HIV/AIDS and some of them have significant issues with mental health and drug addiction. The clients are mostly men.


Did anybody guess Organization 2? I’m betting you didn’t. Nearly everyone views women and children as more sympathetic than effed up middle-aged men. Besides, AIDS is passé and no one cares about it anymore, even though people are still getting sick and dying from it.


I’m told that the politically conservative among us are not without compassion. They believe in charity, I hear. (I am not disputing this point.) But they feel they should get to decide how their charitable dollars—all of them—get spent. I am not unsympathetic to that argument, but I can’t go along with it. I have the same problem with that idea that I have with the idea that someone’s right to get married should be put to a vote. Voters should not have the power to decide whether someone else gets rights, and they shouldn’t get to decide that some people, like effed up middle-aged men with AIDS, should be left to die in the streets.


If the Republican fairy came along and returned the safety net portion of your tax bill to you, first of all, it wouldn’t be as much money as you think it would be. And secondly, even if every single person turned around and donated every penny of that money to charity, some charities would be rolling in dough and others—the ones with the less-sympathetic clients—would be forced out of business. That might be an okay result in market terms. If there’s no demand, the business should fail, right? But charity is not a market.


Organization 2, like every charity, does everything it can to maximize private contributions. There are appeals, events, and grants written by yours truly. In addition, it relies on funding from the government, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. If that funding vanished, Organization 2 would shut its doors and put sick and vulnerable people out of their homes and into the street.


The government is lame and stupid and wasteful in so many ways, it’s no surprise that many people don’t want to entrust their charitable dollars to it. I get that. What no one has ever explained to me, though, is who is going to take care of “the least of these,” the ones who don’t so easily pull the heart-strings, if the government doesn’t coerce the general public into doing so?


And if the answer is “no one,” what kind of people would that make us?




27 thoughts on “The Compassion Gap

  1. Yeah, I don’t really think this is a Republican/Democrat issue. I’ll tell you, I didn’t know which organization to pick. Mothers with physical and mental health problems and drug addictions can be as unsympathetic as middle-aged men with the same problems. Or I guess put it the other way: both can be sympathetic causes. I don’t think I’ve ever believed that I should be in charge of my charitable dollars because I want to choose more sympathetic causes and avoid helping people I don’t like. I think I’ve always believed that government is wasteful and ineffective and bureaucratic, and therefore doesn’t do a very good job helping anyone. It is hard to help some people, in any case, for a lot of reasons that don’t boil down to compassion. I have a plumber coming which is probably for the best because I feel a very very very long comment coming on.

  2. @ordinarybutloud – I’m not saying it’s anyone’s goal to leave someone to die in the streets; I’m saying that is what will happen. A lot of what government does is support local, community-based organizations. They are not the government, but they need government money to operate. What alternative are you envisioning that I can’t see? How is this NOT a Republican/Democrat issue? Didn’t we spend the last two years listening to Republicans tell us that government safety nets are anti-freedom and create dependence?

  3. @transvestite_rabbit – “a lot of what government does is support local, community-based organizations,” = I disagree. It would be *great* if that was a lot of what government does (we’re talking about *federal* government, right?) but in fact I think that is a very small part of what federal government does. I spent the last two years pointedly ignoring the mischaracterization of both party’s positions by the other side. It’s sickening. It’s unhelpful.

  4. I tend to keep my charity type activities pretty close – donated time for friends’ books, resumes, projects… I’d be equally likely to ignore both of those organizations… I don’t lack in compassion… just resource

  5. @ordinarybutloud – Let me rephrase, then. Some of the federal government’s safety net expenditures go to local, community-based organizations, many of which could not survive without that funding. Does the Republican party, as a whole, support continuing those expenditures? Because at no time has anything any national-level Republican has said made me think so. All I have heard, over and over, is that people receiving government assistance are leeches being enabled by liberal suckers like me. If the Republicans think the government ought to be supporting homeless people with AIDS in Seattle, they have utterly failed to communicate that. 

  6. The least of us can just die and let natural selection take its course. The least of us can ‘infest’ emergency rooms or spread disease in the streets. The least of us could be picked up by private organizations. The least of us could resort to crime so that they can go to prison, where at least they get to eat. The least of us could pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Or rely on friends and family. Or “borrow money from our parents.”I don’t know the answer, and the idea does make me sad. Not taking care of our brethren (and I don’t really know if it should be at a government or a different kind of collection-of-persons level) is not Christian. I’m not a Christian anymore, but taking care of the less fortunate is one of the Jesus Principles I am all about.

  7. @transvestite_rabbit – I can’t speak that knowledgeably about the Republican party as a whole, but I would say no, as a whole, the Republican party does not support continuing payments to local charitable organizations by the federal government. I think the Republican party, as a generalization, feels state and local governments and private charities should support local community-based organizations. Which, if you think about it, makes sense as a philosophy of government, completely separate from issues of compassion or how do you care for the least among us. I mean, how much reach should a federal government have? It’s a little weird to think about electing federal officials from my voting booth in Texas because of how I feel about homeless men in Seattle. On the other hand, voting on a bond proposition here in my county for a new shelter makes perfect sense. We need a strong federal government and we should have interstate highways and military and foreign policy and even monetary policy. But when you start to get into questions about the role of a federal government in the lives of a few hundred men in a particular municipality I think you start to part ways in terms of political party.

  8. @ordinarybutloud – Just to be clear, the funds are not exactly payments, they are competitive grants and carry with them intensive reporting and evaluation requirements. The government may be wasteful, but the organizations that receive federal grants are not.I understand the philosophy of government you are putting forth, but in real life it seems unworkable. State and local government and the local philanthropic community are already supporting organization 2. Those funding sources have been maxed out. There is no plausible source of funding to make up for the loss of the federal grants. And of course there are many people all over the country receiving services from many organizations that are funded in part by the federal government. I use this example just to make it personal and real. The bond proposition to fund a new shelter takes us back to my initial point. Some critical needs will not be met if people are not excited about the projects. And then what?

  9. I agree that the organizations that receive competitive federal grants are not wasteful. In fact, I worked for local government and found it to be quite thrifty. There is a gigantic difference between state judge chambers and federal judge chambers. Federal chambers are like palaces. I personally find that wasteful. re: your second point, okay, it might seem unworkable, but what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me either…a local electorate doesn’t choose to fund an organization to solve a local problem, so the national electorate can/should? If you have a homeless problem in Seattle it’s not as if taxing people in Texas will make the world a better place. We have homeless here, too. The farther people get away from the money, the more wasteful a system becomes. More bureaucracy. Less on-site accountability. Less personal connection.But whether you think that more nationalization and more federal funding will bring better local services or whether I think that less federal interference and more local control will bring better local services, you see that neither position is about compassion, right? I have compassion for the poor in Seattle. I have compassion for the poor in Texas. We agree that as a society we should care for the least among us. We disagree about how. And who.Rhetoric about federal entitlement programs comes down to creating permanent federal government obligations that everyone has to pay for, regardless of each state or each city’s needs or the choices of the local electorate. It creates a lot of bureaucracy when your local philanthropic community and tax base shift the burden of caring for the poor to the federal government. Suddenly some guy in a palace in DC is shifting through those competitive grant applications. And the more the local electorate thinks federal funds will cover them, the less local support you’ll have.

  10. @ordinarybutloud – I need to clarify my title and my main point. The compassion gap I’m referring to is not between Democrats and Republicans, it’s between Organization 1 and Organization 2. Judging by their donating behavior, people feel more compassion for one set of needy people (mothers and children) than they do for the other (middle-aged men). I have done fundraising for both organizations, and let me tell you, everyone loves the ladies. So, if funding decisions are left entirely to the philanthropic impulses of the local community, Organization 2 is dead. I take your point about people in Texas paying to take care of people in Washington, but I don’t think we can totally localize such issues. When a given locality offers exemplary social services and another one doesn’t, people migrate, so one locality is simply foisting its problems onto another. Cities are magnets for people with all sorts of problems. If someone with a chronic mental illness grows up in Kansas but moves to Seattle, is it fair for Kansas to say hey, that’s Seattle’s problem? And I totally disagree that the local electorate would care more for people if they didn’t think the feds had it covered. I think people feel stretched to the limit and they are already as generous as they can be. Like I said, if all the safety net taxes got returned to the tax payers, they might make more donations, but probably not to Organization 2. You tell me that everyone agrees that “the least of these” ought to be cared for, but I have never seen a Republican proposal for actually doing so.

  11. @transvestite_rabbit – you’ve never seen a Republican proposal for doing so because you’re looking at national political proposals. Republicans and conservatives of all stripes run charities, run charitable events, start charities, work at charities, donate to charities, all the time. Corporations have matching programs, people have fundraisers, bond issues pass in our county all the time. State governments fund programs. Even at the public school level, this is what happens: our district doesn’t fund our playground fence because it knows that if push comes to shove, our school PTA will pay for it. People feel stretched to the limit…but how does it help to ship that cost off to the federal government? People all over the country feel stretched to the limit. There are limits. Limits can’t be avoided by shifting costs from the city to the state to the country. Limits are given locality offering exemplary services, yes, there are all kinds of complicated regional issues in a nation made up of a collection of states with individual governments and a federal government. No doubt. Some of the states want to offer exemplary services regardless of the limits of economics, and hope to do that by spending the earnings of people from other states with fewer services. I can turn your example around and say why should Texas pay for the unbalanced budget of California? I could also ask why we have federal regulations about educational achievement standards that don’t take into account our substantial impoverished immigrant population. But at bottom it doesn’t solve anyone’s problem to say your local electorate can’t/won’t fund a charity to solve your poverty/homelessness problem, so you need to make people from other states pay for it instead. It’s inefficient. It wastes resources. It puts a lot of people between the money you need and the money they’re paying.I see what you mean about the relative attractiveness of different charities, but that’s what I mean when I say it’s not a Republican/Democrat issue. Yes, some causes attract more money/attention. That’s true in government, too. It’s not as if government is some kind of big, benevolent unbiased funding machine in the sky, hahahahahaha. But there are always going to be some groups that attract more concern than others. Even in your daily love for your individual neighbor that’s true. You feel more inclined to help out your friend who is going through a terrible divorce than you do your friend who is out of commission with a boob job. Both need your help. Both deserve your love and compassion. Growing bureaucracy doesn’t keep your middle-aged men off the streets. It *does* generate more white collar high-paying inefficient government jobs, which can be good for the highly-educated population.

  12. @ordinarybutloud – Oh, I’m sure that many conservatives run charities. I’m sure that many of them get funding from the federal government, too. Here’s a way that government inefficiency is helpful: things don’t change fast, so an issue (like AIDS) that is no longer capturing the public’s imagination still gets funded. Nevertheless, each year at the bidder’s conference they tell us our zillion-page applications may be for naught, because Uncle Sam might cut the grant programs this time. So far, the programs haven’t been cut, but when they are, we will have to shut our houses down. This is the reality that you are not dealing with. “Growing bureaucracy doesn’t keep your middle-aged men off the streets.” The hell it doesn’t. Cutting that funding will put them right back on the streets, too. It’s a cop out to say the states/cities ought to deal with those problems without laying out a plan for how on earth they could do that. The reddest states suck up the largest amount of federal safety net dollars, so clearly those localities are not successfully caring for their own in spite of their philosophical inclinations. If you also kill TANF, SNAP, and other basic needs programs administered by the inefficient, bureaucratic government, you’re going to instantly plunge millions of people into poverty. Many Republicans are okay with that and say so clearly. But I’m not.

  13. @transvestite_rabbit – if you’re saying the reality I’m not dealing with is that your particular house in Seattle is completely dependent on a grant from the government which you feel is threatened by national Republican political policies, well, I guess I can’t argue with that. I have no desire to see your particular grant from the government dry up so that your small house for the homeless in Seattle has to close its doors. But when I’m thinking about national politics, I can’t possibly consider every single recipient of every single program that depends on federal money. If I did that, my conclusion would have to be I want to fund *everything*, and therefore I should vote for the guy who promises to raise the most revenue and spend the most money, without regard to the economic consequences or any other consideration. Just blindly give as much money as possible and hope it gets spent in a way that benefits the greater good.For what it’s worth, I think the best of government spending often gets cut before the worst of it, which is unfortunate but has to do with the natural corruption of political power, in my opinion. Those fat cat appointed-for-life, connected, white male judges working in palaces for bloated salaries aren’t going to see any cuts under either political party. Why don’t we ever think about doing a better job with the money we have, rather than insisting on just generating more?It’s not a cop out; I don’t live in your city/state, so why would I try to lay out a plan for how on earth they could do that??? I have no knowledge of the budget intricacies of Washington state. But I guess one way it works is taking the federal refund of safety next taxes and converting them into local property/income taxes. Then you have local control and can fund unpopular charities through closer government. It’s not like the only options are federal gov’t or private corporate charity. The problem, of course, is that programs get cut and the money doesn’t get returned. It just gets sucked up into government for building more fancy offices.I can’t respond to a statement like, “the reddest states suck up the largest amount of federal safety net dollars,” because I have no idea if it’s true and I have no idea what it means. About half the country is red, last I checked. There are all kinds of factors that impact the sucking up of federal safety net dollars, and the conclusion that the main one is “not successfully caring for their own in spite of their philosophical inclinations” = I disagree. 

  14. @ordinarybutloud – is what I want to hear from a Republican candidate: I don’t believe it is the proper role of the federal government to support people in need with welfare, food stamps, or grants to local organizations. But I don’t want to force people out of their homes. I don’t want children to go hungry. Here’s my plan for changing those policies in a way that doesn’t immediately cause misery and probably riots among people who rely on those programs.This is what I hear from actual Republican candidates and office holders: If we just cut taxes again, the economy will recover and all boats will be lifted. And the leeches who don’t want to take responsibility for their lives, I don’t care about them.

  15. Okay, well, there are plenty of logical discrepancies in that article, and this is what I mean when I say I avoid that kind of inflammatory mischaracterization. In fact, I avoid almost all political “news” these days because it’s all crap. In my car I have the Sirius XM “conservative” radio station set right next to the Sirius XM “liberal” radio station. I like to flip back and forth on days when I’m sick of Pearl Jam radio or there’s nothing on NPR. It’s hilarious. You should try it. It’s just crap, all of it, a lot of people making a lot of assertions without thinking too hard about them, just spouting off a bunch of meaningless statistics taken out of context to support their personal worldview.I don’t think either Republicans or Democrats put supporting people in need very high at the top of their lists. Maybe individual voters do, but not candidates.It’s interesting that you know what you’d like to hear from a Republican candidate…it makes me think you’re in my situation, facing a political world where neither party emphasizes your basic concerns. What has helped me in this regard is focusing on local and statewide politics, because the candidates and the issues are close to me and there are opportunities for me to affect the process. I can vote against a racist, judgmental, privileged, elitist judge who makes decisions every single day in my county. Or I can focus on the national Presidential election where my vote won’t even count.As far as changing policies, i.e. eliminating funding for small grant organizations, what about all the people who *aren’t* being serviced? Again, I hear you about your particular, specific, local charity which services a few hundred middle-aged men. But I could just as easily rant and rave about a population of underserved special needs students in my local elementary school, or a population of underserved elderly in the south part of my county who currently *don’t* qualify for grants or assistance, even with a Democrat in office. Whose pet population should win? Why should I feel guilty for voting Republican and potentially putting your handful of local men on the street when all around me I see other underserved populations on the street? I can do something about local needs. I can do something every day with my dollars and my effort and time, with my local property taxes, with my local and statewide elections. I can see those people. I can donate to their charities. Or I can just blindly send money to the feds.

  16. @ordinarybutloud – I don’t see how the existence of unserved people means it’s a good idea to stop serving others. On this we can agree: neither party offers a truly coherent vision. They both ignore important things. But only the Republican party regularly and loudly expresses the most callous disregard, not only for “the least of these” but also for the rank and file workers, for women, and for minorities. If any Republican candidate for any office wants me to seriously consider their economic policies or to do anything other than spit when I hear their name, that’s going to have to change.

  17. You make a powerful argument as ever, and I can disagree with nothing that you have written here. The faith that I am a part of has failed miserably in the area of ” the least of these” and we should be ashamed. I have no solutions. Thank you for the work that you do on their behalf.

  18. I remember after 9/11, how many other charities suffered because everyone was giving to that cause. I suspect that will happen this season because of Sandy. Whether it’s emotional or intentional or not, I agree that the compassion gap exists. I’m not hearing any support for the masses, in any way, shape, or form from Republicans at the national or local level. I hear a lot of talk about being Christian, though, so are we to believe that those leaders who oppose government assistance believe in faith-based support? Perhaps, but what are their methodologies for choosing whom to support? Bureaucracy lives in those scenarios, too, along with a whole lot of judgement, in my experience. Thanks for your dedication to both of your causes. I hope they both get the funding needed.

  19. I didn’t have time to read all of the comments…my thought is…the liberal crowd, with the reputation of molly coddling everyone, seems to have a general care about people, help everyone attitude.  Those with the means to help want to help a few but not everyone…I’m not sure this will change…I’m guessing men with aids are thought to be those filthy homosexuals..and women and children are the innocents…it’s all in perspective.  Personally…I go the other way.  Give me a poor old man to help and I’m there…it has to do with upbringing, I believe.

  20. I  have a friend who works with homeless families.The work is grueling—one spot for every ten families who need help.It can take MONTHS to find a placement, and the shelters are full. There is a perception that all you need to do is ask—and boom…they find you a place.Wrong.If you slept on someone’s couch last night, you are not considered “homeless”…even if you DON’T have a couch tonight. If you have a car to sleep in, you are homeless…but of course, there are PLENTY of people ahead of you. It’s 30 degrees tonight.It snowed today…and by 6PM, most of the cars had a layer of ice on them. I have a warm house, and a bed…but out there tonight, there are men and women…fathers and mothers who have nothing better than a car to give their kids to sleep in. All over our nation,there are hundreds of thousand of foreclosures…all vacant. NO ONE should have to sleep in their car…

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