The political scientist Harold Lasswell once observed that politics is ultimately about determining “who gets what, when, and how.” The reckoning we are just now beginning to undertake in order to sort out the fiscal imbalances in the United States is thus going to be an inherently political one. It is also going to require some combination of sacrifices, i.e., some paying more for government and/or some getting less from it. There is no other way around it. One doesn’t have to be a cynic, only a realist, to presume that the relative sacrifice that any one group or interest will be making in the course of this reckoning will in large part be a function of their political power and influence amidst the fray. From this vantage point, things don’t bode well for our society’s most vulnerable members and the nonprofit organizations that the government funds to hold up the safety net for them.
On the not wanting to "pay more" side of the equation, we have recently seen examples of how even the biggest corporations can use their lobbying and tax law prowess to create and take advantage of loopholes in the tax code in ways that minimize—if not eliminate entirely—their liability. The individuals earning the most income are thought to wield similar power when it comes to personal income taxes, though it is worth noting that the top 1 percent of earners typically pay 38 percent to 40 percent of the total government revenues from personal income taxes.
It turns out that the rest of us who constitute the other 99 percent are actually quite good at exploiting loopholes ourselves, although we typically don’t refer to them as that. I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to give up my deductions for home mortgage interest or charitable contributions anytime soon—and I am glad there are well-organized and staunch defenders of these interests in Washington. And I still get grumpy every April 15 when settling up with the tax man. But there is the rub—it is hard to see how we can solve the fiscal imbalances without getting more tax revenues coming from those in the lower and middle tax brackets as well as from those in the top, but insofar as there are a lot more votes in the former there are good reasons for both political parties to be dissembling on this point.
On the not wanting to "get less" side of the equation, there are powerful industrial interests aligned with well-placed political proponents supporting defense spending, agricultural subsidies, infrastructure projects, etc. We have also recently seen how far public sector unions and their political allies are prepared to go to defend their members’ jobs, compensation, benefits and right to organize against those who would limit them.
But here too, the most powerful force at work—and one readily manipulated by politicians and advocacy groups—is the keen eye that senior citizens and those of us baby boomers aging into that status are keeping on our entitlements. Under the status quo, as C. Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rannane have demonstrated in a recent Urban Institute study, we will end up taking more out of the entitlement system than we have paid into it. Not a bad deal, that! Given our relative size in the population and our proclivity for voting, it is no wonder politicians regard entitlement reform as the third rail of American politics.
The one group in this contest that doesn’t flex much relative muscle in terms of political power, organization, influence, and votes are the marginalized and underserved who are most in need of support from the government. The game is not unlike a rigged round of musical chairs, with the other players much better positioned and organized to grab a seat when the music stops. Thus the challenge for mission-driven human- service nonprofits: figuring out how to adjust their traditionally government-funded operating models given that their beneficiaries will increasingly be left standing when the game ends. This will ultimately mean that these organizations need to figure out how to do more with less. They will also need to line up more support from non-governmental sources. At the end of the day, human service nonprofits serve the people they do not because the government funds them to do it but rather because their missions call them to do it.