George Bush Speech
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A Missed Opportunity

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We interrupt this series of columns on old homelessness efforts to revisit a speech about a new way that never got a full tryout. I’m doing this now because tomorrow, July 22, is the 23rd anniversary of a speech in Indianapolis that presidential candidate George W. Bush gave to define his campaign slogan, compassionate conservatism. (Disclosure: I was a volunteer consultant regarding his talk.)

Bush summarized his understanding concerning the brokenness that is a central part of long-term homelessness: “Often when a life is broken, it can only be rebuilt by another caring, concerned human being.” He said we need “compassion with a human heart and a human voice. It is not an isolated act. It is a personal relationship.”

Bush pointed out what had gone wrong: “In the past, presidents have declared wars on poverty and promised to create a great society. But those grand gestures and honorable aims were frustrated. They have become a warning, not an example. We found that government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives.”

He then explained what could go right: “Real change in our society comes from the bottom up, not from the top down…. So today I want to propose a different role for government. A fresh start. A bold new approach. … We will make a determined attack on need, by promoting the compassionate acts of others. … This will not be the failed compassion of towering, distant bureaucracies. On the contrary, it will be government that serves those who are serving their neighbors.”

Bush said “resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers [whose] challenges are often greater than their resources. … Without more support and resources — both private and public — we are asking them to make bricks without straw.” His particular way to provide more money without sending more power to Washington would be charity tax credits: “Individuals will choose who conducts this war on poverty — and their support won’t be filtered through layers of government officials.”

In 2001 Bush, in the White House, fulfilled one campaign pledge by prioritizing a huge tax cut. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, made sure that charity tax credits were in the tax cut bill the Senate passed. Finance experts estimate that the tax credits would lead to 12 million new givers, increase giving levels by 11 percent, and stimulate an addition $15 billion in charitable giving.

A surprise happened on the way to final Senate and House agreement on the $1.7 trillion (over ten years) tax cut. David Kuo, an evangelical who became deputy director of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told the story in his 2006 book, Tempting Faith: The White House “told Grassley to get rid of the charity tax credits. … Over ten years the $60 billion price tag for generating all that charitable giving would amount to almost 3.5 percent of the total tax cut. That 3.5 percent was needed for something else — the over one-hundred-billion-dollar cut in the estate tax.”   

The tax cut was good in many ways, but Kuo — who in 2013 tragically died of brain cancer at age 44 — wrote that it “was brutal on the charities that Bush had said were among his highest priorities.” Incentives for Americans to give more to charities: Gone.  An existing incentive, the estate tax: Reduced.

It would have been much better to let Americans send less to Washington by sending more to homelessness programs that work, like the one I’ll write about next week, Community First! Village in Austin. I believe Bush was a good president, but he missed an opportunity early in his administration — and on Sept. 11, 2001, he became a war president and priorities changed.

At the end of Bush’s second term I visited Wheeler Mission Ministries, a longtime Christian homeless shelter in Indianapolis. Its leaders agreed that the president had not come through on his campaign goal to (as chief program officer Cal Nelson put it) “put the decision in the hands of people rather than a bureaucrat getting his ego stroked.” The good news is that some states have adopted charity tax credits on their own, and in others compassionate people are proceeding even amid callousness.