(Mark Rosenman, a Washington-based scholar-activist and director of Caring to Change, a D.C.-based effort to promote foundation grantmaking for the common good, is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he argued that nonprofits are missing from critical policy debates.)
With the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate, Mitt Romney has changed the stakes of the 2012 presidential race. Well beyond Republican versus Democrat, the question now before Americans is who we are as a nation and a people. Over the next four years, we must make decisions about public responsibility for the common good, about what we expect of government, and of what we expect of one another. The nonprofit and philanthropic sectors cannot afford to ignore this debate.
Developed by the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee and already passed by the House of Representatives, the so-called "Ryan Plan" would have an immediate impact on many nonprofits, especially those serving low- and moderate-income people. Ultimately, however, it would affect each and every area of government support for charitable causes.
Indeed, after announcing Ryan as his running mate, candidate Romney issued a statement trying to distance himself from the plan, even though previously he had described it as "marvelous" and said he was "on the same page" as Ryan in terms of budget priorities. Charities are prohibited involvement in electoral politics, but helping to shape a public discussion about policy and our values as a nation is essential; nonprofit and foundation leaders must declare which page they are on.
Before we take a closer look at the unfolding debate, let me point out that Mitt Romney has himself already proposed similar policies. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center concludes, for example, that Romney's detail-deprived proposal for tax reform would give the wealthiest Americans a significant tax cut while imposing tax increases on the remaining 95 percent of Americans.
This parallels Ryan's proposed budget, which would reduce tax revenues by $4 trillion over ten years -- and even more than that in the future. Those breaks, in turn, would save million-dollar-a-year earners an additional $265,000 annually on top of the $129,000 they'll get to keep if the Bush tax cuts are extended for everyone.
What's more, despite its draconian spending cuts and self-justifying rhetoric, the Ryan Plan will actually increase the deficit by $3.1 trillion between now and 2022, according to the House Budget Committee's own projections. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) goes further and says the plan, if adopted, wouldn't balance the federal budget until 2040.
What kind of cuts am I talking about? Let's start with Medicare. The Ryan Plan calls for the program to eventually be turned into a voucher-style subsidy that would result in individuals having to buy more expensive medical insurance in the private market. The CBO analysis suggests that the typical Medicare beneficiary would face an additional $6,400 in annual costs by 2022, although Rep. Ryan has tried to tweak his plan since CBO's analysis was made public.
Furthermore, according to the same analysis, the Ryan Plan raises the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, creating a two-year gap when Americans wouldn't have access to either Medicare or the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges. What would these changes portend for already over-stretched charities and foundations working to support and assist this growing population?
Although the cuts in the Ryan Plan go even further, the plan's most pernicious aspect involves its assault on programs serving low-income people at a time when poverty rate in America is estimated to have climbed to 15.7 percent -- or about 47 million Americans -- the highest level since 1965. Indeed, more than 60 percent of the budget cuts in the Ryan Plan -- at least $3.3 trillion -- comes from government and nonprofit programs serving the poor and those at risk of falling from the ranks of the middle class. Not counting the Medicare cuts, over $2.4 trillion of the total would be sliced from funding for health initiatives for low- and moderate-income people, while the food stamp program would be cut to the tune of $134 billion, denying assistance to between eight and ten million food-insecure people.
Moreover, cuts in low-income programs for education, training, employment, and social services are estimated to total more than $463 billion, while discretionary programs in the same areas are targeted for an additional $291 billion in cuts. Consider what it would mean, for instance, to gut the Pell Grant program and deny low- and moderate-income students desperately needed tuition at a time when higher education is increasingly promoted as the route to economic self-sufficiency.
Beyond Medicare and safety-net programs, the Ryan Plan wreaks havoc in most other areas of concern to charities and the larger public. Agriculture and food safety, the environment, highways and transportation, medical and scientific research -- all are on the chopping block, as are veterans' programs, water infrastructure, national parks, border patrol, law enforcement, and initiatives in every area of government except national security. In fact, according to the CBO, if the Ryan Plan is implemented, spending by the federal government would essentially be reduced to Social Security, health care, and defense by 2050.
In the aggregate, nonprofit organizations depend on government for about a third of their annual revenue. Foundations cannot and will not make up for these missing dollars. And individual giving, especially from individuals whose own economic circumstances increasingly are precarious, isn’t going to fill in for a government that withdraws from most of its long-recognized responsibilities.
That is exactly the possibility, however, that confronts charities and foundations today. Radical policy promoted by "Republican Social Darwinists," as Robert Reich has characterized Ryan and his supporters, cannot remain unchallenged by nonprofit organizations and those who support them.
But what can charities and foundations do? First, their leaders must speak forcefully about the essential role of government in their areas of programmatic concern. While they may be concerned about a backlash, especially from their wealthier supporters, there is a great deal of polling data to suggest that nonprofit leaders can expect to find a supportive audience on many of these tax and funding issues. A factual presentation on the Ryan Plan joined to an invocation of shared American values is likely to bring even more support for the policy positions supported by charities.
Second, charities and foundations, regardless of their mission, must invest in voter registration, voter education, and get-out-the-vote campaigns focused on their constituencies, volunteers, staff, and members of their larger communities. Such activities are permissible under law (see www.nonprofitvote.org), and they are critical to helping people understand the fundamental issues and what is at stake in this election.
In 2012, Americans will do more than elect a president, a vice president, a House of Representatives, and one third of the Senate. They will determine whether or not we believe in shared responsibility for ourselves and each other. Charities and foundations that choose to sit on the sidelines have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
-- Mark Rosenman