Charitable deduction a key giving incentive

Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Three hundred billion dollars can do a lot of good.

That is the amount Americans donate to charities annually. That figure will be on the minds of lawmakers as the House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing Thursday to hear from charities that may be affected by proposals to modify the charitable gift deduction. I will be among those speaking on behalf of the charities affected, urging members of Congress not to accept approaches that would remove the incentive for many to make these critical donations to organizations like Meals on Wheels.

Take Emily, for example. She is 88, frail and homebound. A retired nurse, she worked for 40 years in Johnson County and raised her family there. Now, Emily relies on a Meal on Wheels volunteer to bring her a nourishing hot meal every day. This, along with a caring smile, is her only direct daily contact with another person. Without Meals on Wheels, she would most likely end up in a nursing home instead of living independently.

Her story is similar to the millions of seniors served by the 5,000-plus Meals on Wheels organizations across America. Seniors like Emily may soon be forced to go without that nourishing meal as a direct result of the budgetary changes being considered on Capitol Hill.

One of the most troubling proposals for nonprofit organizations is the threat to reduce the charitable gift deduction or cap itemized deductions. The deduction has been in place for nearly a hundred years, in large part because it is an effective incentive.

A survey by the United Way claims an estimated 30 percent of taxpayers who use the deduction would scale back on giving if the benefit was reduced or eliminated. This proposal would only compound the reduction in donations nonprofits have seen since the onset of the recession.

Meals on Wheels programs rely heavily on private donations. Nationally, more than 70 percent of total spending for Meals on Wheels programs must be raised from non-federal sources. Now, the incentive to encourage much-needed gifts is under attack at the same time that budget cuts at all levels of government are reducing support for services like Meals on Wheels.

Meals on Wheels organizations are an integral part of long-term care in our country. We can feed a senior for one year for roughly the cost of one day in the hospital or six days in a nursing home. Keeping seniors in their homes and out of hospitals and nursing homes is critical to keeping healthcare costs down.

Undertaking a course of action that would undermine charitable giving would have severe, counterproductive and unintended consequences on society.

We at Meals on Wheels believe that, in the debate over charitable deductions, no change is the best policy. At the very least, there should be no change until a broader discussion can take place on the overall role of the charitable sector in providing social services.

For us at Meals on Wheels, this debate is not about numbers -- it is about the seniors we serve every day. It is about the direct impact these decisions would have on the 8.3 million seniors facing the threat of hunger in this country. It is about the doors our volunteers knock on and the neighbors they nourish. It is about the hope our programs deliver to those who otherwise have little.

Vinsen Faris is board chair of Meals On Wheels Association of America, Inc., and executive director of Meals-on-Wheels of Johnson and Ellis Counties.

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