How to Investigate a Charity

Share Button

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

Via a private message, Colleen said “I have been thinking about donating to [Charity X]. How do I know if they’re legitimate or not and if they put the money to good use?”

Obviously, I edited out the specific charity that Colleen mentioned, as it’s not particularly a charity I wish to promote publicly (as I discussed with Colleen, the specific charity she mentioned does some work that I don’t agree with). Instead, I’ll discuss how to research a charity from a more neutral standpoint.

What You Need to Know
There are several key questions you should have the answer to before donating a significant amount to any charity.

What is the charity’s stated mission? Why do they claim to exist? This is a fundamental point. If they claim to exist for a reason you don’t wholly and deeply agree with, you should focus your money and energy on other charities.

Is this organization actually a charity? You need to know if the organization is a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This means that they’re held to certain legal standards, including some restrictions on how they spend their money and how much information about their inner workings they have to share, as well as their tax status (which affects whether you can deduct any donations you make from your own income taxes).

Who runs the organization? Is there a president? A board of directors? A chairman? Who are these people? Are they legitimate folks or people of dubious background?

Do they disclose their financial information? The more open a charity is about their internal finances, the more legitimate it tends to be. An annual report (with independent auditors) is a must and it should include things such as a highly detailed budget and explanation of where all of the money goes. Ideally, they also should make available some of their IRS filings, such as Form 990.

What does your donated dollar translate into? If you give them a dollar, how many cents of that dollar go to various uses? How much goes to the actual cause? How much goes for adminstrative costs, promotional costs, and so on? Obviously, some of your money will need to go to keep the doors open, but most of your money should be going to the cause itself. It’s also worth noting how exactly the money used for the cause is used. Who are the actual beneficiaries? Where are the actual beneficiaries?

How to Find It
You can find most of this information from the comfort of your web browser.

For starters, visit the web site of the charity. There, you should be able to find such information as the mission of the charity, the most recent annual report from the charity, and information about the management of the charity (who’s in charge, in other words).

Next, study that annual report. It should include a very detailed budget explaining where every dime of their money goes and what proportion of it goes into the cause itself. Again, you shouldn’t expect 100% of the money to go to the cause, but a high percentage is expected. You’ll also want to make sure that the budget is audited (check for information about the auditor).

After that, check up on the people involved. At the very least, do a few Google searches on the chairman of the organization and the board members just to see what you turn up. If they have a Wikipedia entry, be sure to read it over. Also, Google the stated auditor of the charity, and you may even want to contact the auditor to make sure that they actually did audit the organization’s books.

Finally, stop by Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator is a wonderful tool that provides a wealth of information about many charities, particularly larger ones. They analyze charities in comparison to other charities of the same type and offer ratings that show how these charities use their money and resources compared to similar charities. Don’t sweat it if the charity you’re looking for isn’t there, as many smaller charities are not listed. However, most large charities are listed. Some charities have glowing reports, while others give off dire warnings.

Together, these tactics and tools should give you a pretty clear picture of the charity you’re considering donating to.

Share Button
Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...

54 thoughts on “How to Investigate a Charity

  1. Thanks for the information about this. A concern of mine are the charities who masquerade as legitimate charities and seem to prey on older people. When I was helping an elderly relative go through mail, I was amazed at the amount of mail she was getting from charities, that proved upon further investigation to be very shady organizations–very little of the donated money actually went to the stated purpose. Even worse, the charitis in question make even more money by selling their donor list information. Even worse than that is actually getting one’s name OFF the many donor lists.

  2. “Obviously, some of your money will need to go to keep the doors open, but most of your money should be going to the cause itself.”

    No, no, no. A charity’s overhead ratio (the percentage of its money not going to “the cause itself”) is a terrible way to evaluate whether the charity is doing a good job.

    For one, it tells you absolutely nothing about whether the money going to “the cause itself” is being used effectively to advance the charity’s stated mission.

    For another, if the charity spends some money (and/or staff time) to evaluate whether its programs are effective, or to figure out ways to make them more effective, guess what that expense counts as? It counts as overhead. When donors demand that charities minimize their overhead ratios, they’re actually pressuring the charities into *not* performing this kind of self-evaluation. That’s incredibly irresponsible.

    It’s legitimate to wonder whether a charity is an actual scam, that just collects donations and doesn’t do anything with them at all. But if a charity *is* an actual scam, what makes you think they’re going to report their overhead ratio honestly?

  3. I find Trent’s comments about his not caring for the particular charity Colleen asked about unnecessary, although I do appreciate that he didn’t tell her not to donate there!

    I disagree about going to the charity’s website as a primary source for anything other than what cause they claim to be supporting – it’s easy for scammers to set up a legitimate looking website, & often try to approximate legitimate-sounding names or affiliations there or in their mailings. Also do a general internet search for the name of the charity & look closely in the results for forums or reviewers, etc. that discuss them. Of course, you need to take those comments with a grain of salt. Check with the BBB or Chamber of Commerce in the city in which their main office is located. For smaller or local charities, you may have to just talk to other people about what they know or have heard about them.

    Our general rule is that we seek out & vet the charities we want to donate to, rather than responding to random requests for support. We prefer to give more to a select list than scattering more limited amounts among many.

  4. I find Trent’s comments about his not caring for the particular charity Colleen asked about unnecessary, although I do appreciate that he didn’t tell her not to donate there!

    Who knows – maybe it’s a puppy-murdering charity!

  5. One easy way to determine the overhead of the charity you’re looking into is to see if they participate in the Combined Federal Campaign. The CFC determines charities that are eligible for payroll deduction for employees of the federal government. In order to participate in the CFC, a charity’s overhead must be less than 25%. Or at least that’s how it used to be, many moons ago when I worked for one of those agencies.

    If you have the time, energy, and desire, volunteer with the charity you’re thinking about donating to. There’s no quicker way to find out exactly what a charity is all about than to get down in the trenches and spend some time supporting it. And I don’t mean stuffing envelopes or building web sites, although those are valuable. I mean volunteering with the people who are the actual beneficiaries of the charity, if it’s at all possible.

    Finally, if you are donating to a charity that has local branches remember that not all branches are created equal. I still send money to the group that I worked with years ago and several hundred miles away, despite a local branch that helps local people. There are several reasons for that, but a big one is the transparency of the first one. I worked with them as an employee, later through another organization, and for years as a donor. They were very open about every single thing they did. Where the money came from to run the office (an endowment), how much of the money raised went to pay for materials to fund the current campaign (between 5 and 8%, depending on how much TV advertising was done), etc. This information was included very year in campaign materials.

    A different branch of the same organization, near where I live now, would not even answer those questions when I asked. So they don’t get my money.

  6. Puppy murdering charity or not I think that the article could have been written without the “Colleen supports a charity that I don’t approve of, and I’ve made sure that she understands that” line.

    Even if it was a charity that Trent approved of I think that editing the name is appropriate.

  7. Well, it just makes me want to know what the charity is- even though it makes no difference at all.

    I consider charities like politicians. None of them are going to be perfect, “vote” for the best of the bunch.

  8. I do care about whether a charity is real or not. But none of my other questions are addressed here.

    What I really wish I could find out about a charity are things like:
    -does this actually work? (Do anti-poverty charities reduce poverty? Do environmental charities protect or improve the environment?)
    -if so, how efficient is it (is there a better way to fight poverty, etc.?)
    -are there any negative unintended consequences? (Such as birth control laws increasing female infanticide, land protection kicking out residents who were actually maintaining it better before?)

    Virtually all the charities I contribute to are in areas where it’s so depressing, I don’t even want to read about the details (poverty, abuse, torture, pain, environmental destruction). But even when I do, it’s still hard to figure out what’s really going on. For example, I used to avoid religious charities because I don’t like forcing religion on people, but then I read that these tend to be much more effective at reducing poverty than other types of charities. This is the kind of information I wish I knew how to find.

    And Gretchen, if charities are like politicians, I’d rather keep my money for myself!

  9. Debbie M, do you know about GiveWell? They evaluate charities working in complex areas (such as poverty) to see if they’re effective and, importantly, if there’s room for them to expand their work if they get more money.

    You can look up their list of top-rated charities (it’s depressingly small) and donate to one of them directly, or you can donate to GiveWell itself, either to fund their own operations or to have them pass your donation along to one of their future top-rated charities.

  10. Unless the charitable tax deduction is critical to someone, rather than researching distant charities to avoid being scammed, wouldn’t it make more sense to be charitable closer to home? Most of us know family members, neighbors, local churches or schools, etc., that need financial or volunteer help, and there’s little risk of the contribution being mis-used when you know exactly who’s spending it on exacty what.

    For those who do want to donate to official charities, another good source for research is Guidestar. That’s an org not a com. Although it requires registration (free), it allows you to view Forms 990 (the charity’s tax return) and provides lots of other info.

    The Form 990 gives board membership, key employee compensation, non-cash compensation provided (housing, etc.), expenditures on different program areas, how much of the budget comes from government grants and via non-cash contributions, what the assets/liabilities are, and more.

    Some charities provide access to these and/or their annual reports on their own websites, which is a good indicator of transparency.

  11. Unless the charitable tax deduction is critical to someone, rather than researching distant charities to avoid being scammed, wouldn’t it make more sense to be charitable closer to home? Most of us know family members, neighbors, local churches or schools, etc., that need financial or volunteer help, and there’s little risk of the contribution being mis-used when you know exactly who’s spending it on exacty what.

    This only works if you’re not also concerned about non-local issues. Personally, I try to give to a mix of local and non-local charities, because I think both are important, but if everyone only gave locally, areas with a concentration of people who couldn’t afford to give very much or at all would be straight out of luck.

  12. One way to approach charitable giving is to give exactly where you see need within your own community. As a teacher I will see specific needs and will give directly to a needy family or student specific items that fulfill their needs. I ask directly, “What do you need?” The answers are sometimes surprising and I get them what they need, not what I think they need.

    Because I’m in charge of prom, I’ve made our grand march into a fund raiser for the local food bank. We raise hundreds of dollars and hundreds of pounds of food.

    There are so many ways to do good and I can tell that most people that visit this site have the need to help others.

  13. Nancy, I love your prom idea. So much money is spent on dresses and hair and limos, etc., etc., and it seems to be this big money-fest. Raising money for a food bank is a great way to remind kids that there is always need, always more going on in the world than shopping for prom. Terrific idea!

  14. Please reconsider the assumption that low overhead in a charity is a valuable metric.

    You often speak of frugality vs. cheapness. If you’re cheap, you just spend as little as possible, and in doing so you risk forgoing a lot of value. If you’re frugal, you look to use what you have to maximize value.

    At first glance, it might seem that for a charity to be frugal, it should keep overhead as low as possible. This blanket statement offers donors some protection: a charity with low overhead probably cannot have their staff lounging around their private gymnasium in brand new La-Z-Boy recliners rather than working for clients. Personally, I doubt that such an outrageous org would report truthfully. However, this same low overhead number limits legitimate organizations from making the investments they need to in order to fulfill their missions more effectively. In other words, I feel that looking for low overhead is not frugal, but cheap.

    One example: a charity simply must have clear, accurate, timely, and transparent finances. Donors want this, and the government requires it. Nonprofit finances can be extraordinarily complex what with multiple grants, myriad donors, diverse programming, and constant reporting to various entities. Just as it’s worth it to pay for a high quality enameled cast iron dutch oven if you cook a lot, it’s worth it to pay for a high quality financial director at a charity. This person’s expertise will pay dividends, but it will not come at zero cost. There is also the potential cost of the errors and omissions an inexpert person would be likely to make.

    Unfortunately, one amazing financial director is not enough to keep an organization strong. Other such intelligent investments in overhead must be made to increase the capacity and stability of an organization: staff, location, office equipment, and fundraising to name a few.

    When we arbitrarily limit such a large category of expenditures, we are taking a small (and probably false) sense of reassurance for ourselves at the expense of the potential of the organization and the needs of their clients.

  15. @Johanna, Thanks for mentioning givewell, I was not aware of them but am going to review the site now as I have been meaning to pick some good charities to start donating to.

    Also, I agree with others that Trent didn’t need to mention he disagreed with the charity in question, that could have been left out and the article would be just as good. All it does is make me try to guess which charity Colleen was going to donate to that Trent does not like, my top guess is planned parenthood.

  16. I’m going to throw one more prom idea out there. I also encourage girls and boys without escorts to have a family member escort them. If they don’t have a family member, we get a military escort. Every year approximately 15-20% of our escorts are family members. The grandpas get the biggest round of applause!

    I also get all the juniors and seniors together and encourage boys that don’t want/afford tuxes to come in dress pants and tie and girls to borrow dresses. In the past few years I’m seeing more and more students take that path and it makes me happy to see ALL involved in the end of the school year party! (That’s what I call it more than prom.)

    Please use this idea in your community. At first, there may be resistance, but now this idea has become ingrained within our community.

  17. Johanna & Emily.

    Ok, so overhead isn’t a perfect reflection of a good or effective charity. I understand and basically agree with the point. But then how are we as contributors supposed to evaluate the quality of a charity and its spending? Is it at least reasonable to say that there is some sort of range for reasonable and appropriate overhead spending levels? I mean if a charity spends 5 or 10% on its actual activities and 90-95% on overhead including 60% on telemarketing, thats bad right?

    There has to be some limit. And honestly if a charity is spending a ton of money on figuring out if its effective or high end salaries then I don’t consider that too effective. I would want them to spend money on those things and don’t mind if they spend a reasonable amount but most of their money should be going to the causes and not their own bureaucracy.

    Overhead may not be a very good measure, but it can provide some useful information can’t it? If not then what do we look at? How do you differentiate a scam from a good charity based on financials??

    Givewell looks good, but their list looks pretty limited.

  18. I work for a small nonprofit organization (not really a “charity”, as we aren’t in direct social services), and here are some additional thoughts:

    - For small organizations, the overhead calculations are really imprecise. We have an 8-person staff and personnel makes up a large part of our budget, so we each have to estimate what percentage of our time is spent on different programs and job functions on an annual basis. Overhead ratios will clue you in when something is way off, but they’re far from an exact science.

    - Trent is right that you can tell something by Googling the Executive Director, CEO, or other leadership. You’ll often see that they sit on the boards of other organizations in their field, testify to government committees or commissions on their issues, are quoted in the newspaper, appear as speakers or on panels at conferences, etc. Each person probably doesn’t do all of that, but you want to get a sense that the person is well-respected in the field and the community.

    - If you have questions, you can call the development or advancement department and ask. Anywhere reputable will be happy to talk with you about their work.

    - Picking places to donate to is a bit like stock picking. To do a really good job, you need to put in some real effort, and you may not always get it right. You can also consider donating to places like the United Way, some foundations, etc. which are more like investing in a mutual fund instead of an individual stock, since they give grants to other organizations. They have people whose full time job and expertise is in deciding where to give grants in order to be most effective. If your local chapter has a good reputation, that may be an easier way to give.

  19. @jim: Why do you think you should be able to differentiate a scam from a good charity based on financials – especially if you’re relying on the charity to report its own financials? If the charity is really a scam, why do you expect it to tell the truth about its financials?

    The line between overhead and “actual activities” is incredibly fuzzy, and many legitimate, well-meaning charities who calculate their own overhead ratios do so incorrectly. Seems to me it should be easy for a “scam” charity to fudge its own numbers well enough to satisfy donors who rely on overhead ratios.

    For example, if a charity runs multiple programs, office space for people who work on one program counts as a program expense, but office space for people who work on all the programs counts as overhead (or so I’ve read). The charity could lower its overhead ratio by renting more offices than it needs, but how is that a good thing?

    And why shouldn’t a charity spend “a ton” of money evaluating its programs, if that’s what’s necessary? A well-intentioned but poorly designed program can end up doing no good at all, or even be a net harm. And a well-designed program can often do many times as much good per dollar spent as a mediocre program. If the charity spends half of its money on overhead, but as a result, its programs are excellent rather than mediocre, that’s still a net plus.

  20. I donate to the Local food bank, they have options of ‘Money goes to food only’ and the ‘general fund’. I always give to the general fund, I’m sure they need to pay for phones and electricity too. I started giving when I learned that 40% of the kids in my kids school get some kind of food aid. After 3 years of giving that number hasn’t gone down. Part of me wonders if the money would have done better trying to fix the problem, but maybe that isn’t how you should measure the efficiency of a food bank.

  21. Re amount of overhead – when I worked for a nonprofit government contractor, we could budget an amount up to 30% of our direct costs (for services provided) as overhead; there were absolute dollar limits on upper executive salaries.

    Personally, if I donate to any charity and then they start sending me an onslaught of expensively produced additional appeals for contributions, they go off my list. I don’t mind paying for office staff, buildings, due diligence, etc. as operating overhead, but excessive expensive advertising, particularly to someone who’s already indicated an interest, is a turnoff for me.

    We’ve gone from expensive Christmas gifts within the family to making a sizable donation (though still less than what we formerly spent on presents) to one or two charities we’ve selected with due diligence.

  22. Johanna,

    First, let me say that I don’t know much about inner workings of charities and I am asking this stuff in a sincere effort to find out more about how to better evaluate them. I’m not just be argumentative here.. for once. ;-)

    Yes true a actual scam operation would probably just provide false information. I think the more realistic goal is differentiating the ‘good’ from the ‘mediocre’. But what might be a good red flag or indicator that a charity might be a scam?

    I get that the overhead vs actual activities is fuzzy and unclear. It shouldn’t be used as an arbitrary pass fail grade for sure. And its of course very reasonable for charities to have a certain amount of overhead expenses. But I still think therse some useful data there. If two fairly similar charities have very different overhead ratios then that should say something, right? If one is 80% overhead and the other is only 30% overhead then isn’t 80% overhead bad?? Or is that just not realistic? When I look at the websites it seems you can tell when a charity spends 40% of its money raising more money. To me that seems pretty ineffective compared to a charity that only spends 2% on fund raising.

    “And why shouldn’t a charity spend “a ton” of money evaluating its programs, if that’s what’s necessary?”

    If its necessary then its necessary and they should do it to fix themselves. But I’d prefer to give my money to a charity that doesn’t require such expensive evaluations in the first place. Theres always room for improvement and I understand and appreciate a charity doing some research and studies, etc. Thats fine. But if some small charity has a $50k consulting bill that represents a significant portion of their budget then to me that would be a negative red flag.

    But anyway, we do agree overhead costs aren’t a perfect measure.

    So then… how do you think that I, as a donor, effectively differentiate the good from the bad?
    How do I find the ones that do the most good for each dollar I give them?

  23. @jim: I encourage you (and everyone else) to poke around the GiveWell site a little more. Even if you’re not interested in any of the specific charities they recommend, they’ve got a wealth of information there about why and how they do what they do that would probably answer your questions better than I possibly could. They’ve got a section on DIY charity evaluation that covers a whole bunch of different areas.

    There’s another excellent site called “Good intentions are not enough.” It’s focused mainly on international development aid, but a lot of the ideas apply to charities working on any complicated problem.

  24. Yes, I have seen Give Well, but it’s a lot bigger than when I first looked at it, so thanks for the reminder. It’s now actually useful for one of the big scary issues I want my money to help with (poverty).

    For traditional info on huge numbers of charities, see Just Give. I also use them for a way to donate anonymously (so the charities don’t waste money sending me a lot of crap and so I don’t get loads of stuff from them and the other charities they sell my information to). They now charge 3% of your donation for this service, but it’s a lot less than the percentage my employer’s program ended up charging.

    (I do donate directly to “charities” where I do want the information and benefits, generally local charities such as public radio/TV and the local wildflower center.)

  25. “I love your prom idea. So much money is spent on dresses and hair and limos, etc., etc., and it seems to be this big money-fest.” Well, the money spent goes to local businesses, and in America right now, small, local businesses are struggling, folding, and going bankrupt. This money isn’t “wasted” as it is put into the economy and people earn a living from it. Same thing with Obama’s villifying the “corporate jet” owners. If the corporate jets (except Airforce #1 and #2, naturally) are banned, then the pilots, co pilots, mechanics, hanger operators, air stewards, food suppliers, fuel sellers, etc. will all be out of work.
    It’s useful to see what the head of the charity collects in wages and benefits. I won’t give to United Way as years ago the head of that charity was receiving an obscenely large amount of money and there was a ton of support staff at tidy salaries, compared to the head of the Salvation Army who received, as I recall, relatively less salary. Big charity is big business, all those do good types collecting a salary to do good. Big charities tend to be wasteful because there is so much money, like big government is wasteful compared to a smaller, tightly run government. Large sums of money flowing tend to corrupt. Better to give to the local animal shelter. As for the food pantries, why is obesity America’s number one problem health wise, and growing? One in seven americans is currently on food stamps for which the rest of us are paying. Surely not more than one in seven Americans is going hungry at night? From what I see on the sidewalks of America, the opposite is true. Make sure the charity to which you give is actually necessary. Right now, in America, it looks like memberships to Weight Watchers ought to be given away instead of food.

  26. @valleycat1 glad to see there are sometimes absolute dollar limits on upper executive salaries. It amazes me how quite small charities can justify high end salaries to multiple board members. And yes I take Emily’s point about the need to employ an amazing finance director and to that I would add an amazing CEO too but when you start getting four or five directors earning very acceptable commercial rates the term gravy train comes to mind.

  27. Nobody’s calling for a ban on corporate jets, deRuiter, you nitwit. I know this is by far from the worst thing you’ve said here, even recently, but it really infuriates me how you and your fellow wingnuts keep saying that “wanting to raise somebody’s taxes” equals “vilification.” Taxes are not a punishment for wrongdoing. Can you get that through your thick skull?

    Also, fat people need to eat too.

  28. #27- People coming to the grand march were not donating McDonalds gift cards, they were donating canned peas.

    When I’ve dropped food off to our local food bank the past 10 years we’ve done this fund raiser, the clientele I encountered were elderly, disabled, or mothers with small children.

    Speaking of animal shelters, my graphic design class painted a beautiful sign for the local animal shelter.

    We can all do good where ever we are and whatever we are interested in doing.

  29. I’ve recently started volunteering at my local animal shelter, animal welfare is my ‘thing’…lol. It’s been a tremendously fulfilling experience. I don’t have much money (working on that!) but donating one’s time is just as important. And even if you /don’t/ have money or time there are still ways you can contribute…for example the shelter /always/ needs newspaper, towels, and their thrift store reuses shopping bags. So I set aside these things to donate whenever I volunteer.

    As an aside w/r/t fat people & food stamps, it’s always been my opinion that the food stamp program should be run like WIC, where only certain foods are eligible. I don’t want to begrudge anyone their cheetos and coke, I just don’t want to pay for them AND the extra medical care all that junk food results in! Of course every time I bring this up I get called ‘elitist’….?? But I think retooling food stamp requirements, even if we have to increase payouts, will save money in the long run if we aren’t paying for all the medical problems brought on by obesity.

  30. @Tamara: Well, micromanaging poor people’s lives (and only poor people’s lives) “for their own good,” because you think you know better *is* kind of elitist. I mean, what do you think “elitist” means, if not that?

    And where do you draw the line? Dig into any comment thread here on any post that has anything to do with food, and you’ll find people with all different (conflicting) ideas of what constitutes “healthy” food. Should white-flour pasta be covered? Fruit juice? Butter or margarine? (Which one is healthier this week?)

    If you want to increase food-stamp payouts so that poor people can afford to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables (at least, if they can get to a place that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, which is not a given), I’m on board with that. Too bad Congress isn’t.

  31. I don’t want to derail the topic too much, but I am well aware of food deserts. However, I don’t think the fact that some people lack access to fresh produce is an excuse to throw up our collective hands and say ‘the people have no bread – let them eat cake’. The solution is to encourage business owners to stock produce and/or build grocery stores in these areas. Retool the food stamp system as I suggested & there you have it, instant demand for those items. Give business owners (temporary) incentives to move/build there and this problem is easily solved.

    I /have/ seen people whip out the EBT card for candy & chips. Why do we allow this to happen? Food stamps are around to make sure one has adequate nutrition to survive – candy & chips provide neither. It’s not supposed to be a method of eating whatever you want on the people’s dime. I hear a lot of people gripe about the ‘welfare queen with 10 kids and an Escalade’ (which I don’t think really exists) buying steak & shrimp with her card – well, I’d /rather/ them eat steak! At least steak has nutrition. I’m not saying poor people should never ever ever have junk food, I’m saying it should be their responsibility to buy it if they want it – not mine and not yours or any other taxpayer’s. We should not subsidize behavior that is deleterious to society as a whole. I read an article today about severely obese children – we’re talking 90 lb 3 year olds. Three year olds! They didn’t get that way from fruit & vegetables, no way.

    I would rather our tax dollars go to helping the poor lead healthier lives by eliminating subsidies for junk food rather than abdicating the responsible use of that money and leaving the poor to flounder in a sea of sugar and corn byproducts…but I doubt it will happen since those lobbyists have Washington in their pockets.

  32. “I /have/ seen people whip out the EBT card for candy & chips. Why do we allow this to happen?”

    Because we believe that other people’s basic choices about their lives are none of our business? Just a guess.

  33. Tamara, again, people are calling you elitist because you’re giving all these examples of social and infrastructure changes we should be making and then saying “Oh, but we still better control what those poor people do for their own good.” You can believe that, on balance, people given options and information will make good choices or you cannot, but if you think that only poor people, given options and information, will, on balance, make poor choices, then yeah, you’re being elitist.

  34. @36
    Or she could think that most people, on balance, make poor choices, but that she has no investment in the choices of people who are paying it for themselves, rather than on the public (her) dollar.

  35. Sorry, but I have to disagree. It is 100% our business what /our money/ is being used for, unless you think the government can just take taxes from you and spend it however they want without the least bit of input from the citizenry.

    Like I said, they are perfectly free to buy all the junk food they can stand – but not with the money we give them. If they want to buy candy, they can earn a dollar. If it’s really that important they’ll find a way to do it. Folks seem to find a way to pay for their liquor & cigarettes (not saying all poor people have those habits but those that do somehow have the cash for it). I worked in a grocery store, I’ve seen this behavior firsthand.

    I have been poor. Hand-me-down underwear and shoes falling off my feet poor. And yet my mom always managed to put a balanced meal on the table – they may have been cheap canned vegetables but there were always vegetables – and there were four of us kids to feed! The only junk food we ever got was the cheap ice cream in the gallon bucket. When I grew up there’s been plenty of times where I’ve had to live hand-to-mouth but I didn’t resort to a carnival of twinkies – let’s just say I’ve had my share of tuna, rice, and beans! So please, do not call me elitist as I have /extensive/ personal experience in this sort of thing. I say again, NO ONE needs candy to survive, and insisting that my taxes go to /helping/ people rather than consigning them to a lifetime of health problems is in no way elitist.

  36. Just a clarification about 501(c)(3) status in the US — churches (and other faith-based groups) are NOT required to be 501c3, and your contributions are still tax-deductible. In some states, like Virginia, churches are not even allowed to file for 501(c)(3) status, and the laws extend to any church-run programs. If a church operates a school, medical clinic, homeless shelter, whatever, don’t think their lack of IRS status makes them any less legitimate. You can still ask for a receipt and write off the donation if that’s relevant to you.

  37. “The only junk food we ever got was the cheap ice cream in the gallon bucket.”

    So when your mother was buying those gallon buckets of ice cream, how do you suppose that looked to the strangers in line behind her at the checkout? About the same as the people buying candy and chips look to you, I suppose.

    “NO ONE needs candy to survive”

    A few years ago, the son of my parents’ best friends died for want of a piece of candy. He had type-1 diabetes. I know that candy isn’t the only thing that could have saved him, but it’s cheap and easy to store and carry around.

  38. Maybe, maybe not. I was only around 9 at the time so I’ll have to ask her if we were on food stamps. I know she was on welfare when I was an infant but she remarried when I was 2, so I don’t know if we surpassed the income limit. And no, I wouldn’t have approved of my mom buying ice cream with taxpayer money, either. The point still stands.

    You know, a lot /more/ people will end up with diabetes (which, incidentally, we’ll be paying for too) if we allow the program to stand as it is. Obesity is /rampant/ in this country, associated with all number of health problems, and odds are if you’re on food assistance you’re on medical assistance too. We have /children/ dying of heart attacks. Sorry, but I’d rather not contribute to nor perpetuate these problems.

  39. You know as well as I do that people DO get diabetes from obesity. And high blood pressure. And high cholesterol. And sleep apnea. And heart disease. And joint problems. Do I need to go on? These are all, for the most part, preventable by proper diet and exercise.

    Please tell me why, exactly, I should be funding that?

  40. Tamara, if you can’t stop the Victorian-style pearl-clutching long enough to listen to anything that anyone else is saying, I don’t see much point in continuing this discussion.

  41. You’re the only one contributing to the discussion, and quite frankly, you don’t have a leg to stand on. You have not refuted a /single one/ of my points, and how can you? We all know junk food leads to health problems. We all know Medicaid/care doesn’t pay doctors at the same rates private insurance does, which contributes to our rapidly increasing healthcare costs. One directly leads to the other. I have offered /solutions/, easily implementable at that, and all you’ve offered in the way of ‘debate’ is “you’re elitist” and “my friend died of non-obesity-related diabetes”. Please, I would LOVE an actual debate with you because if this is what you consider debate, it’s hardly a challenge at all.

    If my concerns about the /health/ and /welfare/ of food stamp recipients and the concern over Americans’ tax dollars being spent in a responsible manner is so much ‘Victorian pearl-clutching’ to you, it says far, far more about you than it does me.

    We all know you’re the blog contrarian, and that’s your right, but your position is just…silly. That’s really the only word for it.

  42. Tamara, I’m a little disturbed that you think it’s a ridiculous position to say society should pursue policies that give people access to healthy foods without dictating how each individual spends food-related aid (any more than we already do, which is not inconsiderable). That shows an odd lack of perspective.

  43. (Incidentally, I also think it makes very little sense to attack Johanna for using an anecdotal story when you’ve (a) implied that because your mother and you did something, everybody can and should, and (b) talked about random people you happened to observe buying random items on a random day.

  44. Tamara is absolutely correct in this discussion, I cannot believe people are disagreeing with here.

  45. Josh, you “can’t believe” that some people have differing opinions about the extent we should restrict use of a particular type of food aid? That evidences a pretty severe lack of imagination.

  46. Tamara, I find your position to be “silly”.

    Here’s where you are right: that obesity leads to health problems. That’s the only sensible point you have made. Nobody denies it . . . but why should we focus on this issue for people on public assistance? This point is not relevant.

    The truth is, the same issues that contribute to poverty also contribute to poor diet and obesity. There are real societal, cultural, financial, and emotional factors that keep people poor and unhealthy. Your failure to recognize them highlights your own privilege, whether you came from a poor family or not. These facts are particularly true for minority groups, who tend to be over-represented in the groups who live below the poverty line and/or accept financial aid.

    The issue I take with your position is the idea that a person on public assistance: a) automatically makes bad decisions, b) needs a rich (and therefore “smarter”) person to make decisions for her because obviously she is not capable of making those decisions herself, and c) should quietly submit to this treatment because she is accepting money from the government.

    I fundamentally disagree with you on all counts. There is no doubt that some people make poor choices with their money (no matter how much money is involved) but that is the risk of offering public assistance and it will not change. It’s a risk that’s worth taking, as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m sorry if you’re concerned about how “your dollars” are spent — but believe me, the money spent/”wasted” on food that doesn’t meet your approval pales in comparison to the other waste that happens in backroom deals all over the place. Again, you are highlighting your privilege and it’s not very attractive.

  47. This discussion highlights why charity is best handled privately and not by government at the point of a gun.

    Johanna would be very unhappy if Tamara’s view prevailed in the political arena, while Tamara is unhappy that Johanna’s has (though not completely). But both could be happy if they put their own money where their own values lie.

    Johanna could donate her charity to organizations that treat their recipients as fully functional and sensible people who can be trusted to make wise decisions with it, and Tamara can donate to organizations that impose limitations and restrictions on their clients. Clients will naturally flock to Johanna’s charity, until the demand is so high that Johanna’s charitable impulses may be exhausted, but such is human nature. Tamara’s charitable impulses, being more sustainable in the long-run, will be there to make sure nobody starves to death, even if they must eat rice and beans instead of pizza and chips. But neither donor is being forced to subsidize a system that conflicts with her values.

    Except we know that’s not true. Because there are two distinctly different types of charitable impulses and the above system conflicts with one of them.

    In one, A notices B might need help, and pitches in to provide it. Naturally, A must make a judgment about whether B really needs help and what kind, in order to really meet it.

    In the other, A notices that B might need help, and demands that C, who packs a gun in case of argument, should force D to provide it. A may or may not pitch in to help, and A might actually be B in disguise, but if there are enough As and Bs, D will be on the hook and expected to ask no questions about how his/her money is spent, on pain of being called elitist or privileged. C, in the meantime, will skim off enough to buy some new guns and keep tabs on D to make sure s/he’s paying up.

    Obviously, I’m with Tamara on this one, and feel free to call me “privileged” even though you know next to nothing about my background and Tamara’s background pretty clearly is not one of privilege. I understand perfectly her concern about how her dollars are spent (and why does Riki put “your dollars” in scare quotes? Is it because she believes all dollars really should belong to the government?)

    Tamara probably had to work hard for her dollars, spends them frugally and donates them generously to causes she believes in. Why in the world shouldn’t she question having them taken from her and handed over to someone whose only claim to them is an actual or faked inability to earn enough to feed themselves? Why WOULD she assume that such people, incapable of supporting themselves, are capable of managing the money she’s been forced to hand over to them? I’m sure some are, but obviously not all.

    I suspect that if food stamp usage were limited to the items on the WIC plan, the demand for food stamps would drop by about a third at least, with an INCREASE in nutrition benefits for the remaining recipients.

  48. Good Post Annjo.

    I don’t quite get why people are demonizing Tamara’s post though. She is never saying the the people that need help should be treated less than human, I thin she is just trying to minimize the waste.

    The purpose of food stamps is to provide people with food who need it. To me, this means providing actual food, not candy and potato chips. It would mean bread, meat, fruits, vegetables, etc…. If someone knew someone who was going hungry isn’t that what most people would buy them?

    If you have the money, buy whatever you want. If you need assistance, the assistance should provide the most bang for you buck. Junk food should not be allowed — not only is it not nutritious but other foods will provide more net benefit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>