The Greatest Amount of Private Charitable Activity in History

Monday, Mar 15, 2010

One of the noblest traits of the century is the growth of organized voluntary effort to relieve the suffering and to raise the fallen. The humane spirit in which such efforts originate has never been absent from the Christian world, but its energies were grievously repressed by the brutalizing influence of incessant war... As the softening influence grew in strength, men turned with ardour unknown before to the work of helping the helpless and lightening the burden of suffering which lay heavy on so large a portion of the people. An enumeration of the leading charities of any of our great cities enables us to estimate the vast amount of kindly energy which men now put forth to ameliorate the condition of their less fortunate neighbours.

Milton Friedman was a famous, nobel-prize winning economist [] and he states that the 19th century saw "the greatest amount of private charitable activity in the history of the world." This was before income taxes and the majority of government programs. He further argues that this was the period with the most humanistic charity, whereas today many people think that if the government will help the poor, the weak, etc., then they don't have to.

INTERVIEWER: You talk about the U.S. 100 years ago and the economy, but many people would say, ah, yes, those were the days that led to robber barons.

Milton Friedman: They would say so. They were also the days that produced the independent colleges. They were also the days that produced the nonprofit hospitals. If you look back, the period of the 19th century -- let's say 1870 to 1914 -- was the period of the greatest amount of private charitable activity in the history of the world: Carnegie libraries, private hospitals. It's a very interesting exercise to go down, look in the world almanac at the list of nonprofit institutions and when they were founded. Boy Scouts, Red Cross. You go down all of the list. Those nonprofit institutions which are devoted to helping people were all founded in the 19th century, or early 20th century. The ones that were founded after 1920 and particularly after the 1930s are primarily professional organizations -- associations devoted to special interests. Very few organizations devoted to helping people, like the Salvation Army or the Red Cross or what I've described before are founded after that.

INTERVIEWER: Why is this?

Milton Friedman: The government has taken over responsibility for it. People say why should I have to contribute to that, the government is doing that; I'm paying tax money. So what's happened? It's not that people have become less willing to make voluntary grants, but they've gone in a different direction. People now give money to museums, to art institutes, to symphony orchestras and so on, but they don't give money to help the poor, because that's -- the government's taken over that function. Whereas before 1914, a much larger fraction of all donations were of that kind and were of a personal kind, in which people took a personal interest. There's an enormous amount of voluntary activity going on in this country. Charitable. But some of it is co-opted by the government, is essentially a contribution to governmental functions -- like assisting in the government schools, in the inefficient government schools. And much of it goes into the kinds of other activities I've described, which really have a wholly different purpose -- cultural, as opposed to eleemosynary.

Milton Friedman Interview, January 31, 1991,

Founded in 1805 by Southwark resident James Ronaldson, the Southwark Soup Society was the first soup kitchen in Philadelphia.

Soup Kitchens: