Fueling opportunity through giving – Ira Silver

With the hoopla of the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty behind us, we ought to recognize that the greatest prospects for change nowadays lie not with government but private philanthropy.

It’s true we’ve been hearing a lot lately from Washington about the need for action to restore the American dream. President Obama has been trumpeting new measures to fuel upward mobility, while several prominent Republicans (particularly Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio) have been uttering similar rhetoric. But, we’d be mistaken to take this as a sign of an impending bipartisan plan. New spending, which any such plan would require, is simply out of the question for the Republican-controlled House.

Ironically, the Right’s steadfast criticism of big government ever since the war on poverty has elevated the legitimacy of charitable solutions to this problem. Consider the massive growth of the nonprofit sector over the past 50 years – 25 percent since 2001 alone. The $316 billion Americans gave to charity in 2012 is, adjusted for inflation, about 2½ times the amount contributed in 1972.

In my latest book Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream I highlight example after example of charitable organizations with track records of using their donations to enable people in tough circumstances to move their lives forward. My blog also publicizes successful philanthropic efforts to help people who are struggling to gain greater access to jobs, education, and housing.

Reputable groups such as Venture Philanthropy Partners, REDF, and Root Cause vet these charities, identifying organizations that make a significant social impact and that use their funds wisely. There are, indeed, many nonprofits with track records of offering second chances to struggling Americans who otherwise would have dim prospects for moving their lives forward.

Of course, there are no magic-bullets for mitigating poverty. Still, these charities offer a variety of programs proven to work. They offer kids an enriched early childhood education, mentor at-risk youth, make college more accessible, teach marketable job skills, and move the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

Amidst rising economic inequality and political gridlock in Washington, an even more exciting trend is that Baby Boomers are expected to bequeath more wealth to their heirs than any prior generations of Americans ever has. The Boston College Center on Wealth & Philanthropy estimates this amount to be as high as $41 trillion by 2055. Indeed, Americans are experiencing an unprecedented opportunity to channel their generosity in ways that can affirm and renew our country’s longstanding promise of offering all people the chance to achieve a better life.

– Ira Silver has spent his career investigating how giving can create lasting change. He is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University where he teaches an experiential philanthropy course. His Opportunity For All blog profiles charities that are enabling struggling Americans to move their lives forward. His latest book is Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.