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Rethinking the Idea of Charity and Volunteerism

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

It is rather interesting watching bills move through the legislative maze and in particular tax bills which this year have taken on a new dimension in attempting to address charity and volunteerism.
Take for example the bill that would give dentists a tax credit equal to 10% of the cost of providing dental procedures for Medicaid eligible patients. Apparently there are services which are either not covered by Medicaid or there is insufficient reimbursement to cover the costs. Thus, the proposal would reward the dentist with a tax credit for doing the work.
Another proposal would provide a tax credit to pharmacies and pharmacists who give pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to the needy. The measure cites the fact that often times the needy do not have the means to purchase the necessary medications or medical supplies for their ailments. Thus, the bill would provide a tax incentive to pharmacists to give the needy the medications and medical supplies they need at little or no cost.
Yet another bill proposes to give taxpayers a tax credit of $20 if they take a class to learn cardiopulmonary response (CPR) techniques. The measure notes that these techniques could save lives and therefore everyone should be encouraged to take the class. Of course the class costs about $20, so the tax credit would be a subsidy for the fee.
Still another bill attempts to encourage taxpayers to volunteer to help upkeep our public schools by donating their time and efforts to help clean and maintain school facilities. The measure would grant the taxpayer a deduction equal to one dollar for every uncompensated hour contributed by the taxpayer to the maintenance of public school facilities.
Even the bill about which we reported a few weeks ago that would deal with the backlog of school repairs and maintenance would award tax credits for contributed services. This is the bill that is predicated on the fact that the community would undertake the effort to repair the long list of backlogged maintenance projects. In fact, projects that would be funded would have to have a component of “sweat equity” in order to qualify for a combination of federal, state, and private funds. The idea is that if the community came together to set the priorities for the repairs, contributing their time and effort, the projects would be successful.
What is interesting is that the tax credit that the proponents believe is necessary to make this idea work is awarded to a very narrow group of people. Only architects, engineers, contractors and surveyors would be granted the 10% credit for the contribution of their “in-kind” services. The credit would be 10% of the value of in-kind services donated by these specific licensed professionals with an annual cap at $40,000.
What is ironic is that while everyone in the community is being asked to donate their time and efforts to make this project happen “for the good of education and for our children,” only these specific people will be given a tax benefit. What happened to the whole idea of “volunteerism” that is supposed to be the foundation of this proposal? Does that mean that others who volunteer are not deserving of a tax credit? The very idea of giving a tax credit to only a select class of “volunteers” demeans the effort.
Have these professionals indeed said that if they don’t get a tax credit for their in-kind services, they will not volunteer for the good of the schools and our children? Proponents of the bill argue on one hand that the tax credit is necessary because the volunteer effort has to compete with projects for which these professionals would be paid. But when questioned about the potential revenue loss if all 14,000 licensees claimed the maximum credit of $40,000, they argue that they wouldn’t be able to claim the maximum credit since most of them are out of work anyway. If they are out of work and don’t have income against which to claim the credit, then with what or whom would the volunteer effort be competing?
One would think that the issue of dilapidated school facilities would elicit the broad support of everyone in the community without the need for a tax credit or tax benefit. After all, this is supposed to be a community effort.
It seems that we have lost sight of what it means to volunteer, to give back to the community. It has devolved to wanting something for our contributions. So much for volunteerism.

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