The idea that government can do something to improve American civil society is in many ways a contradiction in terms.
- The rising influence and power of Washington has contributed to the unraveling of healthy civil society, encouraging dependence on federal programs and crowding out local communities.
- At the very least, federal policymakers must adopt a “do no harm” approach surrounding interactions between public policy and civil society. In moments of national crisis, federal policymakers should consider partnering with civil society leaders to meet the challenges of the time.
- Amending certain provisions of the tax code, such as expanding the charitable tax incentive and retaining the state and local taxes cap, could encourage healthy civil society.
The growth of the US government’s reach has crowded out many of the arrangements that cooperating private citizens have made to take care of those in need and work together to build and maintain healthy communities.
As Nathan Glazer put it in The Limits of Social Policy:
The simple reality [is] that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic or neighborhood group, of voluntary associations.1
Despite the apparent widening scope of civil society, its actual force seems to have diminished. In other words, Facebook or national advocacy groups such as AARP may link us, but they’re not as impactful as are local organizations dedicated to specific purposes, such as school improvement groups and Little League.
As the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project has concluded, “Associational life and institutional health are in decline across a range of indicators.” Further, “Our institutions of civil society have weakened and withered, and our relationships have become more circumscribed.”2 Citing Current Population Survey data, the Social Capital Project also reported in 2019 that the number of Americans who do favors for their neighbors fell from 40 percent in 2008 to just over 20 percent in 2017.3 This is much more than a matter of providing assistance; as the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in his classic book The Quest for Community, the degradation of relationships to others and to local institutions leads to isolation and alienation.
There are countless persons today for whom the massive changes of the past century have meant a dislocation of the contexts of function: the extended family, neighborhood, apprenticeship, social class, and parish. Historically, these relationships had both depth and inclusiveness in individual life because they themselves had functional significance; because, however informally, they had a significant relationship to that distribution of function and authority which is a society’s organization. And because they had this, they had meaning in the lives of individuals.4 (Emphasis added.)
As we see Americans struggle with a loss of meaning and purpose in their lives—and succumbing, for instance, to drug addiction—this is no small matter.
Yet faced with the reality of a sprawling federal government that touches every corner of the country and intrudes on the functioning of civil society, nostalgia for the sort of America Alexis de Tocqueville found—one where “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite”5—is not an adequate response. “Programitis” of the sort that plagues Washington, DC, and legislators is not an answer either.
Indeed, the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to call civil society into action—its Faith-Based and Community Initiative—arguably drew formerly independent groups into an embrace with government.6 Responding to the emergence of every novel symptom of social malaise with a new federal program will miss the underlying problems linked to the vacuum of community life and healthy family ties.
We would be remiss not to seek ways to refine existing public policies and regulations in such ways that help, rather than hinder, self-organized groups. These groups help establish healthy social norms and encourage citizen involvement, both because of what they can accomplish and, indeed, because such cooperation can be considered a worthwhile goal per se. Anyone who has been involved in churches, synagogues, or mosques; 4-H; Boy and Girl Scouts; parent-teacher organizations; or local historical societies and park conservancies can likely attest.
Conservatives should be guided by the principle that civil society is a per se good—and that deferring to it and the associational life it engenders has inherent value beyond the utilitarian. Progressives like to argue that the use of carbon-based power sources leads to a “social cost of carbon” that is not measured by market price alone.7 Similarly, conservatives can argue that a diminished civil society creates unmeasurable costs—the subtle externality of diminished social capital and its concomitant loss of trust and community life.
Of course, we can look to measures such as improved mental and physical health, levels of crime, and drug use. But focusing on civil society can address these without merely targeting them; their improvement should be a collateral benefit, not the result of programs staffed by professional social workers. It can be seen as the approach of the Zen archer—hitting the target without aiming for it.
Five Strategies to Encourage Civil Society
This chapter proposes five types of efforts at the federal level to encourage—but not prescribe—a healthier local social fabric and civil society as a whole. It aims to encourage the traditions of civil society participation and charitable giving so they are accessible to all Americans, not just those who live in high-income ZIP codes. It also aims to resist the temptations of programitis while expanding on what works and phasing out what has outlived its use. Specifically, I propose the following.
Expand the Charitable Tax Incentive. Because of the 2017 tax code revisions and the increased standard deduction, a decreasing number of Americans qualify for the charitable tax deduction, which requires taxpayers to itemize their returns. To expand the tax incentive to make charitable contributions, the incentive should be available as either a deduction or tax credit, even to those who do not itemize their returns.
Maintain the Charitable Deduction’s Universality. Conservatives should also push to retain the tax cap on deductions for state and local taxes (SALT). It may restrain high state and local government spending by ending the tax subsidy, which mitigates its impact on taxpayers. At the same time, it leaves charitable giving as a major potential means to reduce taxes for taxpayers in high-tax states and helps reduce the federal deficit and debt. It could, in other words, indirectly encourage charitable giving.
As the system is currently structured, any donation to a legally designated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization qualifies a taxpayer for the charitable deduction. But progressives continue to push for limits on which types of donations qualify, proposing to restrict tax-incentivized giving to efforts viewed as reducing economic inequality, for instance. Conservatives should defend the current unrestricted deduction but should not shrink from considering its outright end rather than accept limitations. This is, to be sure, not a first choice—but in the face of a potential assault on an unrestricted charitable deduction, it should not be ruled out.
Adjust Current Federal Programs That Affect Civil Society. Any number of federal programs affect civil society directly or indirectly. Modest adjustments in how they are administered can limit their prescriptiveness and centralization in ways that encourage voluntarism and localism. As the Social Capital Project has argued regarding goals for public policy:
First, it would seek to leave space for mediating institutions, removing policies and barriers that undermine them. Second, it should attempt, wherever possible and appropriate, to utilize mediating institutions for the delivery of public services and the realization of social goals. It should actively seeks [sic] to incorporate civil society into public policy, not circumvent it.8
This chapter examines the practices of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Use the March of Dimes Precedent. On rare occasions linked to crises, the government should consider turning to civil society for financial support for uncontroversial national causes. Precedents include selling liberty bonds during World War II and creating March of Dimes to raise funds for polio treatment and vaccine research—both spearheaded by Washington.
The popularity of such historic efforts suggests that their precedent might have been applied during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not to say that Operation Warp Speed, which led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, was not a success—only that it might have been accompanied by less public skepticism.
Phase Out Programs That Have Outlived Their Use. New federal social spending programs tend to develop in response to crises. When there is reason to conclude that a crisis has waned, it can be time to consider phasing out such programs—both because progress has been made and because citizen cooperation in dealing with social needs has value that goes beyond the utilitarian. One example includes programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy, which has fallen in incidence and been the focus of a national drive led by a civil society, nonprofit organization called Power to Decide.9
Charity and the Tax Code: Expand the Charitable Tax Incentive
A clear first response might be to enable an increase in charitable support (the lifeblood of many civil society groups that do not rely on federal government contracts).
Because of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the overwhelming majority of American taxpayers can avail themselves of the so-called standard deduction, linked to such factors as their number of dependents. Thus, close to 90 percent of taxpayers do not itemize their tax returns—and consequently have no access to specific taxable income deductions, including the one for charitable giving.10 Those who do still itemize are overwhelmingly high-income earners, meaning the high-income population has a disproportionate incentive to give. Charitable giving should be accessible and incentivized for all communities and earners in the United States, and it is worth examining how our tax code could be adjusted.
An above-the-line charitable tax deduction or even a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for all taxpayers (including non-itemizers) would be a conservative response to those who argue that such indirect support is little more than a tax expenditure. In other words, this would repurpose what is fundamentally not the government’s money—based on the implicit understanding that government does not have an inherent first call on private funds and that Americans retain funds to direct at their own discretion only at the government’s sufferance.
Further, the fact that government direction of social spending is not inherently fairer nor more effective underlies this argument. Private charitable giving enables individual self-expression and investments in unpopular but worthwhile ideas—whether related to science, culture, social services, or public policy. It is a hallmark of American life and remains why Americans are some of the most generous givers in the world.11 A tax code that effectively makes charitable giving a luxury denies the large majority of taxpayers an incentive that is provided to the affluent.
Figures 1 and 2 track the percentage of households giving to charity by income, itemizing status, and cause from 2000 to 2014. The drop has been particularly pronounced among non-itemizers, those giving to religious causes, and lower-income Americans, although the trend is also apparent for itemizers, those giving to secular causes, and higher-income Americans. While total individual giving has increased over time, its share of total giving has decreased by 18 percentage points, from 83 percent in 1978 to 68 percent in 2018.
Figure 1. Percentage of Households Giving to Charity by Income, 2000–14
Figure 2. Percentage of Households Giving to Charity by Itemizing Status and Cause, 2000–14
As the Social Capital Project noted in its 2019 report Reforming the Charitable Deduction, “While total giving has increased, the percent of Americans giving has decreased, from 66 percent in 2000 to 56 percent in 2014. In other words, growing donations are coming from a shrinking share of the population.”12 (Emphasis in original.)
Revising the tax code to include a universally available above-the-line charitable deduction would have only modest revenue effects—but could reverse the decline in individual charitable giving and encourage giving among lower-income earners.
A 2018 American Enterprise Institute study by tax economists Alex Brill and Derrick Choe estimated that replacing the current charitable deduction with an above-the-line deduction would increase giving by $21.5 billion in 2018 and reduce revenue by $25.8 billion.13 However, the revenue effects of extending the reach of the charitable deduction to lower-income taxpayers should not be our major consideration. Rather, extending the incentive to give to charity to the less affluent should be seen as an end in itself, a tool to help revitalize civil society and neighborhood life in lower-income communities.
The same study estimated that replacing the charitable deduction with a 25 percent nonrefundable tax credit would have a greater impact, increasing giving by $23.3 billion in 2018 and reducing revenue by $31.1 billion. Moreover, the report found that the credit would mostly increase the number of households choosing to make charitable contributions.14
Such an effort should be viewed in much more than financial terms. By incentivizing charitable giving among taxpayers of more modest means, such a tax law change could effectively target civil society organizations in lower-income neighborhoods.
As I found in my American Enterprise Institute report Is Civil Society Becoming a Luxury Good?, far more local not-for-profit groups can be found in higher-income Census tracts and ZIP codes than in lower-income ones.15 Thus, a tax incentive that targets lower-income taxpayers would not only provide support for the churches and YMCAs in lower-income areas but potentially support new organizations through which associational life would expand and improve. As stated in the report: “Civil society’s role in creating social trust makes it important to identify ways to reinforce and rebuild civil society in lower-income communities.”16 In other words, supporting civil society must be viewed in more than utilitarian terms. The sheer dimension of associating—“uniting,” as per Tocqueville—must be understood as a benefit in itself.
The SALT Cap: Maintain the Charitable Deduction’s Universality
That an expanded tax incentive for charitable giving reduces federal tax revenues should reinforce conservative support for the existing $10,000 cap on the tax deduction for SALT. This SALT cap, in place since the 2017 tax law changes, increases federal tax revenue by some $80 billion annually—no small amount.17 Yet the SALT cap is also worth retaining for its implicit incentive for charitable giving.
The charitable tax deduction is one of the few remaining ways for affluent taxpayers in high-tax, blue states such as California and New York to reduce their taxable incomes. Such donors have historically been major sources of charitable giving, which has continued to be the case in the years following the enactment of the 2017 TCJA.
From the point of view of affluent taxpayers in high-tax states, the charitable deduction is a virtually unlimited means to reduce one’s adjusted gross income; up to 50 percent of one’s annual income can be deducted. The increasingly popular individual charitable accounts known as donor-advised funds (DAFs) provide a vehicle to reduce tax liability in high-earning years (contributions are fully deductible) and then disburse funds in subsequent lower-earning or retirement years.
Conservatives, indeed, should oppose efforts to require rapid payouts from DAFs, lest they discourage contributions and reduce the ability to give during times of crisis (such as the coronavirus pandemic). Such contributions should not be viewed as a means of tax avoidance. Rather, these funds are directed to organizations other than the government because donors believe such organizations will serve as better stewards—or, at the least, use funds in ways that the government overlooks or cannot execute well.
This is not to say that broader changes in tax law will obviate the importance of the SALT cap for potential charitable giving. Higher marginal tax rates, per se, have been shown by themselves to lead to greater charitable giving by effectively increasing the tax reduction value of the charitable deduction. But relatively modest top marginal income tax rates combined with the SALT deduction cap create an even larger incentive for high-income taxpayers to avail themselves of the charitable deduction.
Nor is it to say that the charitable tax deduction should always be defended. A school of left-liberal critics of American charity asserts that the deduction is both regressive (by giving the affluent greater tax relief) and supports charitable giving, which itself fails to benefit the poor.
Stanford political scientist Rob Reich leads the way on such criticism, as Inside Philanthropy has observed:
Reich says that it’s far from clear what American taxpayers are really getting in return for the tens of billions that the U.S. Treasury loses annually from the charitable deduction. What we do know, he says, is that the “distribution of charitable giving does not predominantly benefit the poor.”18
Reich documents this familiar point in detail but takes it one step further by noting that wealthy taxpayers who take the deduction give the least to help those at the bottom: “The higher up the income ladder, the less likely donors are to direct their giving to the poor.”19
Reich profoundly misunderstands the value of charitably funded organizations in supporting cultural, educational, and medical institutions, which benefit society broadly. But should his views gain acceptance—and lead to strictures on which types of donations qualify for the charitable deduction—conservatives should not shrink from withdrawing support for the charitable tax deduction altogether, rather than accepting the view that the deduction reflects a government-first claim on the funds and a right to decide where they should be directed. To be sure, this would be a radical response in defense of what might be termed philanthropic freedom.
The core concern is this: If the deduction were reserved for select purposes, such regulation might prioritize those purposes and crowd out other forms of charitable giving. Rather than acquiesce in such a dramatic narrowing of the charitable deduction, it might be better to forgo it.
Reforming Existing Programs: Adjust Current Federal Programs That Affect Civil Society
Federal social programs, by their very nature, affect civil society by lessening the importance of civic institutions. Many government social programs will likely continue for the near future. In that context, it is worth considering ways to minimize harm they might cause or reform them in ways that might benefit civil society. Indeed, as programs are renewed, Congress should view them through the prism of civil society.
Here are two examples—offered to be illustrative, not exhaustive—of programs that could be made less prescriptive and therefore benefit civil society.
AmeriCorps. The national service program known as AmeriCorps, administered by the CNCS, aims to support, through an annual stipend and prospective college tuition support, thousands of volunteers, age 18–24, working for nonprofit civil society groups. The CNCS, which describes itself as the only federal agency for community service and volunteerism, has supported 270,000 members, disburses $800 million at the federal and state levels, and partners with 2,000 organizations. (CNCS also oversees the Peace Corps and the Volunteers in Service to America, which targets senior citizens.)20
Crucially, however, AmeriCorps does not let those paid volunteers choose which type of group they will help. Rather, groups are chosen based on six priorities: education, economic opportunity, disaster relief, economic stewardship, healthy futures (for the elderly), and veteran services. The way AmeriCorps chooses organizations can be overly bureaucratic, focused on “educational opportunity and economic mobility for communities experiencing persistent unemployment or underemployment, and students experiencing homelessness or those in foster care” or “evidence-based interventions on the AmeriCorps Evidence Exchange that are assessed as having Moderate or Strong evidence.”21
Many organizations and communities benefit from the work of AmeriCorps members. But it is well worth questioning why these so-called paid volunteers should not be permitted to choose to assist any IRS-approved 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. As matters stand, the national and state AmeriCorps programs are implicitly choosing what sorts of organizations will qualify for what amounts to free labor. That, after all, is what true volunteers do in American civil society.
In the current system, CNCS is effectively substituting for Congress by choosing to direct funds with such specificity. This amounts to unelected bureaucrats making the sort of spending and values choices that should be reserved for representative government. The nation simply cannot know what it is missing by limiting these volunteers to select causes and purposes.
Far better for the volunteers, through a voucher system, to make their own choices—leading to the prospect that ideas and organizations not approved in Washington or state capitals might improve communities. Such an approach envisions a first-come-first-serve method to apportion the AmeriCorps fellowships. Those selected, rather than being screened based on their expressed interests and the extent to which they align with CNCS priorities, would then be free to bring their labor to any bona fide nonprofit.
This approach would free civil society from the strictures of government while still allowing it to take advantage of federal financial support, which is, in all likelihood, destined to continue to win congressional approval. By screening volunteer applications, AmeriCorps is again, de facto, choosing which portions of civil society to subsidize. Not doing so would release civil society—at least those organizations that do not already contract with government to provide services—from the chains of Washington.
CPB. Federal financial support for public broadcasting has long been a controversial issue for conservatives, who believe public “media,” as it’s now called, leans left in its story selection and story treatment. But public broadcasting is undoubtedly here to stay. The $445 million appropriation for the CPB—which is, in turn, distributed to public television and radio—survived the Trump administration’s effort to reduce it to zero; a Republican Congress refused to go along (choosing to renew the funding).22 But public television and radio directly touch civil society across the US, through a network of more than 1,500 local stations that are charged with serving their communities—and must, by statute, raise local matching funds to receive their “community service grant” financial lifeblood.23
In this context, it is worth considering whether the public broadcasting funding formula can be altered in such a way as to help civil society. Such a question arises in the context of a significant need for a mission with which public broadcasting local stations are charged: local news coverage. As the CPB ombudsman has noted in this regard:
Some 2,100 newspapers have closed in the past 15 years—many in economically struggling communities. Private-equity firms have snapped up others and stripped away their newsgathering operations. Thousands of journalists have been laid off. And the advertising-supported business model for news has been decimated by the ad-intensive internet behemoths Google and Facebook.24
Local communities find themselves in “news deserts,” which threaten local democracy and the health of communities. Some commercial online news sources have begun to develop, but many communities are too small to support such alternatives. This raises the possibility that public broadcasting funds might be distributed in a manner that more directly allows local stations to retain federal funds and direct them toward local newsgathering—augmented and market-tested by funds from local donors. Indeed, 57 percent of overall local-station revenues come from individuals and private businesses.25
At stake is $315 million, which is distributed in the form of community service grants. Although these funds are directed to local stations, they come with strings. Some $22.8 million directed to local public radio stations, for instance, must, by statute, be used for national programming—such as that of NPR. So, too, are local stations required to pay for PBS television programming.26 Put another way, federal funds for “community service” are redirected to Washington—at a time when local communities need local journalism.
Notably, much national programming can now be accessed via smartphones—obviating the need for local, over-the-air broadcast channels. This, in turn, suggests that local television and radio license holders, which currently pay for the right to broadcast the likes of Downton Abbey and PBS NewsHour, might better husband their resources for local content. And even though the range of media types—visual and audio—have merged online, CPB funding, based on 1967 legislation, continues to direct a far larger appropriation ($74 million) to television,27 even as public radio podcasting and online visuals have become common and popular.
Put broadly, a civil society–oriented approach to public broadcasting would focus on ensuring that more local journalistic content is produced by the system—and continue to require that any federal funds be matched by local donations, a key civil society test. More specifically, it is time to end required local support for NPR and PBS, which should face their own market test. As a nonprofit, NPR itself has an inherent advantage in raising funds, as do many PBS producer stations. (PBS itself functions mainly as a program distributor and funder of productions.)
The animating idea of public broadcasting when it began during the Johnson administration was that of a market failure in broadcast—a so-called vast wasteland that government funding could improve by supporting programming based on “creative risk.” The landscape has changed dramatically in the intervening years, as production services such as Amazon, Apple, HBO, and Netflix invest in new and varied productions that are critically well received. If there is a market failure today that is relevant to public broadcasting, it is that of local journalism. Major stations in cities including Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York have already moved to specialized local journalism—and should, indeed, see their formula grants reduced so that funds can be diverted to smaller communities that find themselves in news deserts.
A healthy civil society relies on information about local government and discussion and debate about local issues. Public media can contribute to civil society health—but not by sending local funds back to Washington.
Civil Society Awareness in Policymaking: Use the March of Dimes Precedent and Phase Out Programs That Have Outlived Their Use
The ideas above are based on programs and policies with which I happen to be familiar. Implicit, however, is a broader vision: that policy thinkers cease to default to Washington-centric approaches as new challenges arise and current ones persist. How might consideration of civil society have played a role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic? There may be moments of national crisis in which the government actually can partner in a non-harmful way with civil society. Franklin Roosevelt arguably did so through the March of Dimes, encouraging widespread citizen support for the development of a polio vaccine in part through hundreds of local chapters.
What if the country had done something similar with the COVID-19 vaccine? Would there have been a higher level of citizen trust and less vaccine hesitancy? A fundraising campaign, albeit providing modest amounts of resources, might nonetheless reduce the psychological distance between research and rollout—and could have provided a means for Americans to feel invested in a dramatically positive way. Instead, Operation Warp Speed was a black box to most citizens—many of whom became vaccine skeptics.
Similarly, policymakers should acknowledge the capacity—and intrinsic value—of civil society as they consider new appropriations for existing programs. I would suggest that some federal social programs may be phased out and returned to civil society—based on changed circumstances. For instance, teen pregnancy in the US has dropped dramatically over the past three decades. Should the federal government continue to direct grants to organizations dedicated to reducing it? Mentoring programs have proliferated. Is federal support for them necessary? The argument for such phaseout must rely on the idea that there is a loss associated with replacing civil society with government intervention.
Teen pregnancy prevention is especially notable. The decline in teen pregnancy has been sharp and dramatic, falling from more than 60 per 1,000 female teens in 1990 to just over 17 per 1,000 in 2018. Yet funding for public programs has remained consistent or risen during this period.28 Indeed, since 2010, the budgets for the four types of teen pregnancy programs (including evaluation components) have, according to the Congressional Research Service, increased from $235 million to $285 million, even as teen pregnancy has sharply fallen.29 To be sure, rolling back any program that addresses a widely acknowledged social problem would not be easy. But that should not mean that all social programs continue without end.
Conservative policymakers should be guided by the principle that civil society is a per se good—and that deferring to it and the associational life it engenders has inherent value beyond the utilitarian. I am somewhat skeptical that the government can do much about civil society except through the charitable tax incentive. However, some government programs can be adjusted to limit damage to civil society and perhaps help it, and we should not shrink from phasing out some programs and turning them back to civil society. Washington policymakers should resist the temptation of programitis that has plagued much of the civil society initiatives of the past 30 years, often crowding out nongovernment actors.
Government must recognize that no amount of policy experimentation can replace citizens dedicated to their own communities. Government’s long-running encroachment on civil society cannot be easily reversed—but incremental reversals would still matter in terms of their immediate effect and the signal that they send. As government encroaches on and crowds out civil society, community is harmed, and collateral damage results.