A lesson regarding public charity

by John Holbrook Jr.
A Biblical View, April 24, 2017, revised April 26, 2017


During the 20th century, the idea took hold that public charity – i.e. the use of public funds for private benefit – is a legitimate function of federal, state, and municipal governments. Now in the 21st century, few people question this idea. Indeed most people regard the claim that public charity is an illegitimate function of any level of government as preposterous. Such was not always the case.

In his biography of Davy Crockett, Edward S. Ellis gives an account of a meeting between Crockett and Horatio Bunce. At the time, probably 1831, Crockett was a congressional representative from Tennessee. Seeking reelection for another term, he was traveling through his congressional district and talking to his constituents. Bunce was a simple farmer and one of those constituents. Bunce indicated that he would not be voting for Crockett in the future and explained why. During his previous term, Crockett had apparently voted in favor of the federal government providing support to a private person. Bunce predicted that, once the federal government started down the road of dispensing public charity, what had begun as a trickle would become a torrent.

Later Crockett credited Bunce’s remarks with causing him to reverse his position with respect to public charity. I will let those remarks speak for themselves and avoid further comment – except to say (a) that the US Constitution is the Law of the land, (b) that the U.S. Constitution does not give to any branch of the federal government the power to dispense public funds to private entities, (c) that the Bible admonishes us to obey the laws of duly constituted civil government, and (d) that, in view of the excerpt from the Congressional Research Service Report below regarding federal spending in 2011- six years ago; the situation is far worse today – Bunce’s prediction of the future of public charity was remarkably prescient.

Horatio Bunce’s Remarks to Davy Crockett[1]

…I know who you are; you are Colonel Crockett, I have seen you once before and voted for you the last time you were elected. I suppose you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again.

Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows either you have no capacity to understand the Constitution or that you are wanting in honesty and firmness to be guided by it.

In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it in that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting or wounding you.

I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the Constitution is different from mine; and I will say to you what, but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest….but an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth having, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more honest he is.

Though I live here in the back woods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown.

It’s not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing to do with the question. The power of collection and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is, the more he pays in proportion to his means.

What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government. So you see that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he.

If you had the right to give him anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20 million as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper.

You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose.

If twice as many houses had been burned in this district as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about 240 members of congress.

If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men in and around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even one luxury of life. The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditable. And the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving by giving what was not yours to give.

The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.

So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt that you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.

Excerpts from the
Congressional Research Service Report on Welfare Spending[2]

Ranking Member Sessions and the minority staff of the Senate Budget Committee requested from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) an overview of cumulative means-tested federal welfare spending in the United States in the most recent year for which data is available (fiscal year 2011). The results are staggering. CRS identified 83 overlapping federal welfare programs that together represented the single largest budget item in 2011—more than the nation spends on Social Security, Medicare, or national defense. The total amount spent on these 80-plus federal welfare programs amounts to roughly $1.03 trillion. Importantly, these figures solely refer to means-tested welfare benefits. They exclude entitlement programs to which people contribute (e.g., Social Security and Medicare).

A list of all 83 federal welfare programs examined by CRS follows:
o  Family Planning
o  Consolidated Health Centers
o  Transitional Cash and Medical Services for Refugees
o  State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
o  Voluntary Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit—Low-Income Subsidy
o  Medicaid
o  Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program
o  Breast/Cervical Cancer Early Detection
o  Maternal and Child Health Block Grant
o  Indian Health Service
o  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (cash aid)
o  Supplemental Security Income
o  Additional Child Tax Credit
o  Earned Income Tax Credit (refundable component)
o  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
o  School Breakfast Program (free/reduced price components)
o  National School Lunch Program (free/reduced price components)
o  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and         Children (WIC)
o  Child and Adult Care Food Program (lower income components)
o  Summer Food Service Program
o  Commodity Supplemental Food Program
o  Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico
o  The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
o  Nutrition Program for the Elderly
o  Indian Education
o  Adult Basic Education Grants to States
o  Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
o  Education for the Disadvantaged—Grants to Local Educational Agencies (Title   I-A)
o  Title I Migrant Education Program
o  Higher Education—Institutional Aid and Developing Institutions
o  Federal Work-Study
o  Federal TRIO Programs
o  Federal Pell Grants
o  Education for Homeless Children and Youth
o  21st Century Community Learning Centers
o  Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEARUP)
o  Reading First and Early Reading First
o  Rural Education Achievement Program
o  Mathematics and Science Partnerships
o  Improving Teacher Quality State Grants
o  Academic Competitiveness and Smart Grant Program
o  Single-Family Rural Housing Loans
o  Rural Rental Assistance Program
o  Water and Waste Disposal for Rural Communities
o  Public Works and Economic Development
o  Supportive Housing for the Elderly
o  Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities
o  Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance
o  Community Development Block Grants
o  Homeless Assistance Grants
o  Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME)
o  Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA)
o  Public Housing
o  Indian Housing Block Grants
o  Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers
o  Neighborhood Stabilization Program
o Grants to States for Low-Income Housing in Lieu of Low-Income Housing         Credit Allocations
o Tax Credit Assistance Program
o  Indian Human Services
o  Older Americans Act Grants for Supportive Services and Senior Centers
o  Older Americans Act Family Caregiver Program
o  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (social services)
o  Child Support Enforcement
o  Community Services Block Grant
o  Child Care and Development Fund
o  Head Start HHS
o  Developmental Disabilities Support and Advocacy Grants
o  Foster Care
o  Adoption Assistance
o  Social Services Block Grant
o  Chafee Foster Care Independence Program
o  Emergency Food and Shelter Program
o  Legal Services Corporation
o  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (employment and training component)
o  Community Service Employment for Older Americans
o  Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Adult Activities
o  Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Youth Activities
o  Social Services and Targeted Assistance for Refugees
o  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (employment and training)
o  Foster Grandparents
o  Job Corps
o  Weatherization Assistance Program
o  Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

© 2017 John Holbrook Jr.

[1] From The Life of Colonel David Crockett (1884) by Edward S. Ellis. Bunce’s remarks were spoken to Crocket, then reported by Crockett to Ellis, and then reported by Ellis to his readers. Thus I doubt that we have a verbatim record here. Moreover, there are other problems with Ellis’s account. He identifies the beneficiary of Congress’s largesse as the victim of a devastating fire in Georgetown, but there are two things wrong here. House records indicate that the location of the fire was Alexandria VA and the time of the vote was 1827, prior to Crockett’s assuming his seat in the House. The victim may have been Widow Brown, the wife of a deceased general and another beneficiary of public funds, approval for which was given by both House and Senate in 1828, after Crockett took his seat in the House. Despite the errors and inconsistencies in Ellis’s account, however, Bunce’s remarks have the ring of authenticity to them and undoubtedly reflect the tenor of what he said to Crockett with some accuracy.

[2] https://www.budget.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/CRS%20Report%20-%20Welfare%20Spending%20The%20Largest%20Item%20In%20The%20Federal%20Budget.pdf


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