Mitt Romney and Sandy: What do liberals have against charity?

FEMA has in important role to play. Given the continuing misery and worsening situation in New York's outer boroughs, personal disaster relief isn't it. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 4, 2012 — In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there was a small uptick of support for President Obama. After a natural disaster, it seems that people are more likely to look to government to help them out, convinced that when devastation is on a huge scale, relief efforts should be on as huge a scale.

When Mitt Romney gathered canned goods, water, diapers and paper goods at a rally after the storm, he came in for widespread media ridicule. It was a stunt, a photo op, a diversion of scarce Red Cross resources to handle donations in kind when what they really needed was cash. This was a job for FEMA, unionized emergency workers were jumping into the breach, and Republicans who thought that local government and private groups should take the lead had to be eating crow.

FEMA in particular came in for media praise. This was no longer the crony-run farce after Hurricane Katrina, but a serious, qualified agency that would do the right things right away.

A week later, FEMA has only just solicited bids to get bottled water for people in the disaster zone. FEMA was supposed to have forward-staged supplies of water and other emergency supplies in the area, but it neglected to do so. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are still without power, many residents are without food, and looting has become rampant in the absence of police during the night. 

New York isn’t New Orleans and Sandy wasn’t Katrina, but the resentments of people who haven’t been helped yet and the inability of federal agencies to get a handle on the situation are much the same.

By relying on massive relief efforts from massive government agencies, we forget something important: The relevant consumer of relief efforts isn’t the state or the city, but the individual. There are some things private charity can’t do, but when liberals disparage private charity, they forget that there are things that FEMA, or even large private charities like the Red Cross can’t do. If the people of Staten Island are sinking into hunger and despair, whatever it is FEMA is doing isn’t what they need it to do. Emergency federal money isn’t what residents of the outer boroughs need, but food, blankets, and protection from thugs.

Private charity and gifts in kind shouldn’t be scorned after a disaster, but embraced and empowered. Federal government should do what it’s good at – fixing roads, providing transport of goods to affected populations, providing some coordination of efforts – and invite private charity to do what it can do. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate seems to understand that, his philosophy being that FEMA isn’t the team; it is part of the team.

It seems that a lot of people think that citizen involvement should be restricted to sending money, and lots of it. Americans are still a civic-minded people. You ask us to help, and we help. Vast numbers of labor-hours are donated to help disaster victims in southern Louisiana and Joplin, Missouri. Armies of volunteers have torn out wet drywall and warped cabinets, carted away freezers filled with rotting food, provided helping hands in ways the government never could. They’ve helped rebuild homes, provided blankets, diapers and food, provided relief to individuals, the ones who need it.

It makes no difference whether it’s Bush’s FEMA or Obama’s – reliance on FEMA to provide post-disaster relief demands that government do what it can’t and doesn’t do well.

Liberals seem to see private charity as a threat to government and respond with hostility towards it. It isn’t that private charities can clear roads and airlift tons of supplies (though some can), but that private charitable activities fuel civic spirit and foster a sense of independence from government.

Private charity and government should be partners, not adversaries. The Preamble to the Constitution reads, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The Constitution doesn’t create a nation of rugged individualists. It creates a nation on the principles of insurance to promote the general welfare.

Whether encouraging people to donate canned goods, diapers and blankets after a disaster is the sufficient or necessary thing, it’s a good thing. Reminding people that they are neighbors to a greater society than they see over their back fences is a good thing, and promoting a spirit of personal involvement and responsibility for others beyond their taxes is a good thing.

Romney’s “stunt” was the right thing, the importance of the message far beyond the importance of the actual goods collected. We are a nation of neighbors, and sometimes all that makes the miseries of life bearable are neighbors who bring a casserol, bring a hammer, and in their limited, insufficient way show that they care. It’s sad that our media sophisticates have forgotten that.

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He’s benefited from a lot of helpful neighbors over the years, and he wouldn’t trade them for all the money in FEMA. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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