Friday, February 29, 2008
The Charity Commission -- The Regulator for Charities in England and Wales yesterday released proposed guidance on the meaning of public benefit as it relates to the relief of poverty. At first I thought this was an odd thing to do -- publish 33 pages explaining why relief of poverty generates public benefit. The connection between relief of poverty and public benefit seems so obvious that no explanation is needed. But what about groups that relieve the poverty of those who might be breaking the law. I am particularly thinking about helping illegal immigrants. As many people know, there are efforts underway in a few closed minded communities to criminalize the provision of human assistance to people whose very existence in a certain time or place is considered illegal (absurd, I know, but true nevertheless). The proposed guidance doesn't go nearly far enough in discussing or illuminating that issue. Here is pretty much the entirety of the comment (appearing on page 21 of the document):
Some might argue that it is not for the public benefit to help people whose poverty is considered to be ‘self-induced’ or the result of ‘irresponsible behaviour’. We consider that, however a person finds themselves in poverty and however ‘irresponsibly’ people might have behaved which has resulted in their poverty, it is a characteristic of a civilised society that certain basic needs are met. Accordingly, we do not consider it appropriate for trustees to take a judgmental approach to the financial needs of beneficiaries if such beneficiaries genuinely lack a basic requirement of life. Likewise, we consider that it is proper for a charity to relieve the poverty of asylum seekers or other persons who, for whatever reason, are denied welfare benefits by law. While there might be public policy reasons why such people are not permitted access to welfare benefits, we think that it is permissible for charities to assist those people who are destitute or in need due to financial hardship. We do not consider that such cases give rise to any public harm that might influence whether an organisation is relieving poverty for public benefit. However, there might be circumstances in which there are public harm issues to consider and we would welcome views regarding circumstances where this might be the case.
I think most people would agree that a charitable organization that helps relieve poverty of an "illegal immigrant" is both doing something good by feeding, housing, or clothing the poor and simultaneously helping people break the law. Should the illegality doctrine result in the revocation of the organization's tax exempt status? Intellectual honesty forces us to conclude that maintaining watering holes in the southwestern desert, for example, so that illegal immigrants from Mexico don't die also has the effect of making the decision to cross the border illegally easier to make. The problem doesn't arise so much with our northern border because for one thing there are no deserts to worry about and for another thing, we seem quite unconcerned with illegal immigration from the north -- go figure! Ok, let me stop there before I get too hot and bothered.
Anyway, for readers who want to comment on the proposed guidance go here.