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If Congress leaves charity out of COVID-19 economic stimulus, more people will suffer

This Monday, March 9, 2020 file photo shows donated blood in a transportation case at The American Red Cross donation center in Scranton, Pa. Due to the flu season and coronavirus, donations to The American Red Cross are down across the country.
Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP

Congress is racing toward a $1 trillion — or more — stimulus package to save the U.S. economy from the devastating impact of the coronavirus. It is a flailing effort at best that lacks anything that could possibly fire the piston that propels the engine of American civil society, which is desperately needed and immensely at risk. There is nothing in the legislation that encourages donations for nonprofit, religious, civic and volunteer organizations or helps others get involved.

Consider this instead: Congress should immediately remove the caps on charitable contributions for one year.

These are extraordinary times with unprecedented circumstances, requiring unique approaches to lift and strengthen individuals, communities and the nation’s economy. Before conservatives hyperventilate about handouts and hard work, and before liberals squeal about the things only big government can do, remember that this crisis is only temporary, and so should be the response. Removing caps on the tax deduction for charitable contributions should only be for one year.

Government is going to be overrun with demand for social services in the days ahead. Where will those in need turn? They would usually look to civil society, but, sadly, the coronavirus has also propelled nonprofits, religious, civic and volunteer organizations into unstable and uncharted territory. If the virus cripples charitable giving and decimates nonprofits. it would blow a gaping hole in our already shredded social fabric. It could undermine forever the foundational character of our country.

America has been the global leader in total charitable work for more than a decade, according the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index. CAF assesses charitable giving in the three ways individuals function within civil society.

1. Providing help to a stranger.

2. Volunteering time to an organization.

3. Donating money to charity.

The current conditions of the pandemic are eliminating a citizen’s ability to engage with strangers or gather together and serve in organizations. And donations are down, as many who might normally give are worried about their own job stability and economic outlook. There are, however, many who could contribute. Why not incentivize them to give?

Now, if this idea were pursued as a permanent policy, everyone could rightly have the concern it would likely transform charitable giving into a massive tax shelter for the wealthy. I get it. But at a time when our economy and nonprofit sector are in unprecedented crisis, I would think that everyone would welcome the idea of rich people shoveling money into civil society.

This pandemic is an all-hands-on-deck emergency. The normal shirts- and-skins partisan debates are as obnoxious as they are irrelevant to the needs of the nation.

Charitable giving reform has been needed for a long time. The current crisis seems like a great time to start. With two of the gates to giving slammed shut — helping a stranger and gathering in groups — Congress would be wise to open the third gate — donations — wide open.

There are members of Congress, like my former boss, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who have been fighting for families and civil society for a long time. In the current situation, it seems that those in the middle layers of society, between government and the individual, may well be the gate-keepers to real solutions for many of the pandemic-induced problems.

Civil society has definitely received the short shrift in the first draft of the $1 trillion economic package. There is a tiny provision in the current proposal for increased charitable giving deductions capped at a mere $300 more. Lee and like-minded social capitalists should continue to bring Democrats and Republicans together to open up the third gate.

While members of Congress are at it, they should just simplify getting checks to Americans by sending every adult citizen $1,200. Yes, that includes Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill and Melinda Gates. In an emergency, speed and simplicity matter most. So get the money through the third gate and out the door. And what do you think Buffet, Gates or any other wealthy person is going to do with $1,200? I would bet the ranch they would give it to charity, a nonprofit or a person in need.

President Donald Trump could even start off a new American giving agenda by challenging every American who is able to donate that $1,200 to a local charity or nonprofit or to an individual who would then buy groceries, pay bills, purchase supplies and pump that money back into the economy. Nonprofits would likewise use that gateway to pay employees, manage facilities and meet the needs of those they serve.

Over the past several weeks there have been countless news reports of Good Samaritans making a difference across the country. That is the essence of American civil society.

The best way to help Americans in need and strengthen the economy is really Samaritanly simple. The biblical account says the Good Samaritan first helped a stranger in need. Second, he donated his time by taking the wounded stranger to an organization — the inn. Then, when it was no longer possible for the Samaritan to sustain the first two gates of giving, he deployed the third; he offered a charitable donation. He even promised he would give again, if needed.

The challenges of the coronavirus will require the American people to summon the better angels of their nature and prove that our country is great because our people are inclined to do good. Congress should open the gates that will unleash, incent and nudge every American to prove that Tocqueville was right: “America is great because she is good.”