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How Sanders’ charitable giving may undermine his central message (COMMENTARY)

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan, United States, on February 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Young *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUROCK-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Feb. 16, 2016, and with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on April 18, 2016.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan, United States, on February 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Young *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUROCK-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Feb. 16, 2016.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Feb. 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Young *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on April 18, 2016.

(RNS) Candidates for national office often get scrutiny for their charitable giving. Much was made of Sen. Barack Obama giving less than 2 percent to charity. His running mate, Joe Biden, gave just .2 percent 10 years ago. Hillary Clinton gives more in charity on paper, but much of it is to her own foundation.

Republicans, though generally less concerned with poverty, are also terrible at giving. Between 2006 and 2010, Ted Cruz gave less than 1 percent to charity. The latest information we have about John Kasich is that he gives less than 2 percent. Trump also apparently gives a tiny percentage, relying instead on outside donations given in his name.

What about Bernie Sanders? His central message is that those with resources must pay “their fair share” to support those who have less. Surely, then, Sanders must be dramatically outpacing the other candidates when it comes to giving.

But despite being in the top 4 percent of U.S. earners and living in relatively cheap Vermont, Sanders gave a mere 4 percent of his income to charity. Furthermore, his effective tax rate was a mere 13.5 percent. This is less than Mitt Romney, who was roundly criticized for paying a low percentage in taxes.

Unless we learn more from Sanders, which might put these numbers in a different context, he is a victim of his own critique: He is not paying his fair share.

Sanders recently visited the Vatican and claimed to support Catholic social teaching. That teaching insists wealth exists to be shared, and that as a matter of justice our excess resources should go to the impoverished.

The social teaching of Judaism has also insisted that giving to the poor is a matter of justice. Indeed, both Judaism and Christianity have traditionally taught that a minimum of 10 percent of one’s income must go to the needy.

Of course, one need not be religious to come to this conclusion. Princeton’s Peter Singer, though perhaps known to most religious people for his views on life issues, first became famous for his views on our duties to the poor. A secular Jew who has railed against religious traditions, Singer nevertheless insists that giving to the poor is a strict ethical requirement. In my research for a book I wrote on his work, I discovered that he also used 10 percent as a moral requirement.

Again, there may be mitigating circumstances. Sanders’ children have long since become adults, but perhaps he is helping his grandchildren in various ways.

He may have given to charities and not deducted the money. Perhaps there is a large medical (or other) bill that hurts his ability to help the needy. It would be good to hear from Sanders about such circumstances, and also get information on previous returns to use as a means of comparison.

Any of these reasons could explain why he isn’t paying his fair share. But here are three that won’t do the trick.

  1. Some might wonder if a second house in an expensive Washington market might be contributing to Sanders’ inability to give, but many senators live together in cheap apartments just to save money. His need to be in Washington from time to time is no excuse, especially given the substantial economic benefits offered to members of Congress.
  2. Some might excuse his behavior by comparing it to that of other, wealthier presidential candidates. But the fact that someone with more money falls short of his moral duty is no excuse for Sanders to fall short of his.
  3. Finally, some might wonder if the socialist revolution for which Sanders calls might explain his behavior. After all, some socialists believe sustaining charities actually undermines the total economic revolution that is required. But that does not appear to be Sanders’ position, In 2013, he said: “I and other members, we give money to Vermont charities. But I think it’s the right thing to do. If other people are hurting, we should make it clear that we’re willing to feel the pain as well.”
Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

There is no question that government has a huge role to pay when creating a society in which everyone pays his or her fair share. The debate will continue with regard to how much, and in what ways, that role might be expanded.

In the meantime, however, the great remaining need of the most vulnerable must be filled by charities. And those charities need resources. From us.

Yes, Bernie Sanders: We should be willing to feel the pain as well.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)

About the author

Charles C. Camosy

Charlie Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, "Resisting Throwaway Culture." He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from Philippines.


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  • Is Dr. Camosy meeting the 10% standard? If you are going to write about this, you should let your readers know.

  • Our country is not going to be transormed by charitable giving, It will change if Bernie Sanders is elected president!

  • By percentage he gives twice what the others do and you attack him for being cheap. The arguements against Sanders get weaker and more contrived by the day.

  • Disgusting article. My dog caught the scent of your red herring, but stayed on the real trail.

  • This is a hack job. Sanders personal charitable giving habits does not negate his policy proposals that di jn fact, align with Catholic social teaching.

  • In a 1981 speech, Mayor Sanders told The United Way ”I don’t believe in charities” and went on to question the ”fundamental concepts on which charities are based.” In 2013, Sanders indicated that senators should give some of their salaries away if federal employees’ salaries are cut. I would be interested in learning which charities Sanders has supported and what place he thinks charities should have in our society in relation to a powerful State.

  • I like Bernie, and he really needs to be be congruent. If he espouses significant giving, he needs to carry that out. If he’s going to focus on what is ethical and right, those are the things he needs to do.

    It seems to me that the more one has, the more one ought to give to those in need. Let’s leave the Hypocrisy meme to Republicans. They seem to do it so well.

  • Ouch, it sounds like people are really getting majorly defensive about Mr. Sanders. He is a candidate for office – he should be scrutinized like any other politician. He can handle it or he wouldn’t be in politics. It doesn’t matter if he gives twice as much as any candidate when the percentage of the other candidates is so darn small. To put it in perspective, they are very poor givers and he is just a poor giver. Or perhaps this article makes other people feel insecure about their own giving? Most of us fail to live up to standards. I know I don’t and I do need to give more. Again, don’t get defensive. It gives us something to aspire toward.

  • Does Peter Singer give 10 percent of his income to charity or does he recommend that people should give that amount. This is not clear…..

  • It really makes no difference what Dr. Camosy does. The facts of this story are not dependent upon the moral conduct of the writer, aside for moral relevance of reporting the truth.

  • Mr. Sanders is both cheap with the poor and hypocritical about it, whereas the other candidates are only cheap. That’s a double strike against his character, as opposed to a single.

  • The truth is that many within our political class do not see charitable giving as a strategic way of assisting the most vulnerable among us. By their policy proposals they believe the government should grow its role in assisting the poor through the levy of taxes from you and me. Partnerships between gov. + charity will inevitably decrease. If you don’t agree let your voice be heard.

  • I for one don’t think Sanders is cheap. As you stated – he is giving more than others. Kudos for giving anything / any amount to charity. I do think there is a reasonable argument to be made that many politicians believe you grow the government to assist the poor through the levy of taxes from the American worker etc. Charities are not seen as strategic partners and conduits through which much of the work could get done with higher efficiency = cheaper + more effective.

  • If we had vision it could be a both / and proposition. Charitable giving and charities have played a historic role in helping and assisting the most vulnerable among us. I have worked in two war zones with charities and they do amazing work along side government partners. Again, it is a both / and proposition. Charities have a role to play…

  • I think the more important question is this…Is there a reasonable standard, that has been developed by the 3 major religions, of giving to the least among us. Could the 10% standard be the goal to strive for. I really think that is the question.

  • Indeed, Catholicism has the most appropriate vision for a general governmental structure. It is called Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching.

  • I would not say the others are hypocritical. They too, especially the democrats, claim that helping the poor is a priority to them.

  • You just can’t make this stuff up! Socialists always see the pie as limited, so they’re generous with everyone else’s money. Capitalists in the US have made us one of the most generous people in the entire world, using OUR OWN MONEY! We see the multiplier-effect of free enterprise and freely-engaged trade, and we’re happy to share the bounty, knowing there’s always enough and more!

  • Tziggy, this pope is different from his predecessors. He’s an Argentine socialist, forever envious of the political and economic successes of the USA, also uncharacteristically hungry for the limelight!
    I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have to kiss-up to this fellow, therefore I give no quarter! He puts himself out there as some kind of hallowed economics authority and hopes none of his flock will question it. I live by my own conscience, informed by continuous learning. I certainly do get to question and critique his “facts” and conclusions.

  • I disagree with your assesment of Pope Francis, but that’s a different discussion. Good luck to you!

  • Are you kidding? Very little of what you said is true. CSJ says nothing about socialism, but rather atheistic communism or a flavor of socialism that denies private ownership. This is the problem with Republican Catholics, they do not realize the Cold War is over. These conservatives, who happen to attend mass on Sundays, live in a false reality that somehow laissez faire capitalism is how Jesus wanted it. It’s so frustrating. This is why I will stick with the Saints and the Church Fathers.

  • Yes, but disagreement can exist on what should be carried out where. The Catholic Church is silent on Bernie Sanders’ view of socialism.

  • How much do you give? Bernie makes less than all of the other candidates. He gives over twice as much. Pick up your stones and go home.

  • On the contrary h2o, everything I said is correct. A rebuttal with substantiation would be more lengthy than most would read, however, if you are interested in truth and Catholic teaching read about:
    1. Subsidiarity – in regards to Social Justice and taking care of the poor.
    2. Socialism – You like Saints? Google St. John Paul the II, Socialism. But don’t stop there. Read paragraph 2425 of the Catechism.
    Between the two of these you will gain a better understanding of my post and hopefully your faith.

    Finally – I am no more Republican than I am Democrat, nor do I hold any fondness for the form of capitalism which currently foments a profit at all cost mentality. It enslaves individuals every bit as much as Socialism.
    Your assumption that I’m a Republican leads me to believe you need to bone up on the importance of abortion as it trumps (and please no “Trump” puns, he makes me cringe) everything, and I mean EVERYTHING.

  • Maybe the GOP and the Dems ought to do what the Vatican has done: Great unostentatious–the Marta House–accommodations for members of Congress who want to take advantage of plain housing that could solve a lot of the financial and commuting pressures of the Congressional members. But this should not be much more than the Vatican: A bedroom and bathroom, and a sitting room. Deciding whether or not the facility should have a cafeteria or not could be taken up over time. That would take a lot of pressure off members of Congress for a place to live while their families can live in the family house as before the election, without bankrupting the legislators who are sent to do the people’s business. Computer connections, and cable or other tv set up, and laundry in the hall, or they hire someone to do it for them. should be provided. The last thing we need is a palace at a big discount, but for those who are really determined to make use of this for what it is intended: Basic housing for those who want it, could be welcome. Those who are offered housing and turn it down have made a statement of their priorities.

    Pr Chris

  • H2o are you saying you think the government has shown wisdom with how they spend our tax dollars and that we ought to give them more?
    – As a Catholic what do you say about tax funding of abortion and contraception?
    – Who looks after those who could be productive if only someone would love them enough to cut them off from the freebies and show them the dignity of an honest days work?
    Bernie Sanders view of Socialism is still Socialism. Branding it as “Democratic” Socialism changes nothing, and the Catholic Church is not silent on this. Please research. Our freedoms are being voted away with every election

  • I’m also an Independent. Those folks down in Cuba and North Korea would LOVE to be enslaved by our brand of capitalism, in terms of how a country that produces such abundance, takes care of the poor–both here and around the world!

    Marxism has done it’s very best to stamp out capitalism (losing badly, with only these two sad gulags to lift up as their big successes!) Marxism has also perverted your religion, calling it :the opiate of the people.” At the very least they seek to convert its members in these regimes to being “useful stooges.” Again, you need to study what social justice really looks like under these regimes–perhaps go live there and experience it first-hand, before you go preaching to us about the morality of our economic system that has lifted the most people up from poverty all around the world!.

  • Your post makes no sense. Capitalism where the goal isn’t “Profit at all cost” is a great system. I would never deny it’s contribution to our once great country. I’d submit to you Capitalism as we would like to remember it has been distorted and perverted beyond repair. The printing of money, buying political favors, bribery, Lobbyists, etc… We are governed by corporate and governmental interests now, not the will of the people. That being said I despise Socialism, Communism and Marxism even more. And I have no idea what your point is regarding Marxism as it relates to Catholicism, but i can assure you there is no connection between the two.

  • What I give isn’t relevant to this conversation, because unlike Charles Camosy, I’m not throwing stones at anyone else’s charitable giving. 10% may have been a fine amount in the ancient or medieval world, but it doesn’t always work for middle-class American families. Btw, I’m not a Christian so please don’t cite Jesus to me.

  • I definitely agree that 10 percent doesn’t mean anything. My apologies. I may have responded to the wrong person.

  • Eeck! Arbustin, why all the sensitivity of about a plain old literary clique? Whether you are a Christian or not is of no relevance to the point. Ad hominem attacks upon the messenger, doesn’t change the facts of the message: Bernie is rich and doesn’t personally give much more than any of the other candidates to the needy.

  • Not sure what you mean by a plain old literary clique, but this wasn’t an ad hominem attack. Camosy criticized Sanders et al. for not giving 10%. If Camosy doesn’t give 10%, or have valid reasons for doing so, he’s a hypocrite. That’s the only reason his level of giving would be relevant. The reason I mentioned not being a Christian is that the other commenter’s remark of “pick up your stones and go home” (which apparently was directly at a different commenter anyway) seemed to be referencing John 8:7 and the adulterous woman. Maybe I misread it.
    My broader point is that without knowing someone’s personal finances, most of which are not reflected on an individual tax return anyway, it is unfair to criticize someone’s giving level. And for Camosy to do it without us being allowed to ask how much Camosy is giving is hypocritical.