Not content with simply gorging themselves on mountains of shrimp cocktail at corporate-funded receptions and moonlight cruises, politicians and delegates attending both national political conventions this year spent more time than ever at places usually ignored during a presidential campaign season: local charities.
In Boston during the Democratic National Convention, members of Congress volunteered with the Greater Boston Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, and other local agencies. The Republican National Convention did them one better, sponsoring a "Compassion Across America" initiative, in which party activists performed community service at sites nationwide, culminating with volunteer work at hunger and housing organizations this week in New York City.
These convention events represent a growing – and troubling – trend in which politicians and political parties are using charities as backdrops for campaign photo-ops.
Most nonprofits – fearful of offending powerful people and wanting positive publicity – agree to serve as hosts. All too often, they are used to create cover for politicians who actually vote to cut poverty funding. For instance, most of the food assistance charities in New York at which delegates volunteered this week receive funding from the New York State Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, which has had its budget cut by $2 million by Gov. George Pataki.
Such chutzpah reminds me of the old quip about Richard Nixon: "He would cut down a tree, then mount the stump to make a speech on conservation."
Yet the most disturbing facet of such events is that they give the impression that private, occasional volunteerism and charity are more important than full-time, year-round government programs. A few of the events helpfully highlight public polices related to hunger and poverty, but most don't even mention any role for government in systematically addressing these problems. When politicians in the middle of a campaign show up at a local charity, they convey the sense that these problems can only be overcome one bowl of soup, one hammer and nail, and one can of beans at a time. Even elected officials who do have strong records fighting to reduce poverty rarely mention a positive role for government while volunteering, as if it would somehow denigrate the work of the charity.
Although public officials have held photo-ops at charities since time immemorial, they have typically done so when there is at least some connection to their official duties. But volunteering during a campaign usually has more to do with winning votes than improving government policies.
Ironically, according to a survey my organization just conducted of New York City food pantries and soup kitchens – more than 80 percent of which are faith-based – charities say they want government to play a serious role in solving poverty and hunger.
Not one agency that responded said faith-based and other nonprofit groups should have the prime responsibility for ending hunger; a whopping 95 percent said government should take the lead, either alone or in partnership with other sectors of society.
Ninety-three percent believed "the best way for government to be more compassionate to low-income Americans" is to increase funding for "food, housing, health care, transportation, child care, and other materials needs, and leave it to religious groups to focus on their spiritual needs." Only 7 percent believed there should be more government focus on encouraging "greater religious content in the delivery of social services," and a paltry 6 percent preferred increased faith-based funding – which they would directly benefit from – if it meant cutting existing government social service programs.
Perhaps most telling, over 90 percent said the most important responsibility of public officials is "to pass laws, create programs, and provide funding" to reduce hunger and poverty. Only 9 percent believed the best approach was for public officials to "occasionally volunteer at food pantries and soup kitchens and encourage others to do so."
When it comes to a choice between feel-good photo-ops and concrete government action, the "armies of compassion" have a clear message for our leaders: get real.
Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.