Government and Disaster Relief

Federal Disaster Relief Displaces More Effective Private Charity

The North Dakota flood this past spring was a heartbreaker. The scenes of devastation gripped the nation and brought tears to the eyes of millions.

Back here in Michigan, my historian friend Burt Folsom used the occasion to acquaint me with an event about which I knew nothing: the terrible Michigan fire of 1881. Folsom noted a couple of differences between these two natural disasters, and gave me an earful of information that readers of this column may find interesting.

The first difference is that, bad as the flood on the Red River was, the Michigan fire exacted an even greater toll. Raging flames swept through the state’s “Thumb” area, killing almost 200 people and destroying over one million acres of timberland. “The flames ran faster than a horse could gallop,” said one survivor of this devastating blaze. Its hurricane-like fury uprooted trees, blew away buildings, and destroyed millions of dollars of property across four counties.

A second and more profound difference, according to Folsom, may be seen in prevailing attitudes toward private charity and the role of government. In the North Dakota flood, a California philanthropist donated $2,000 to every flooded household and many others pitched in, but much of the spotlight focused on high-profile politicians and other people’s tax money they were generously offering to the victims. President Clinton and four cabinet secretaries flew to Grand Forks to announce a policy rarely adopted in federal relief efforts: Washington would pay 100 percent of the immediate emergency work, not the “mere” 75 percent it paid in the past.

At the time of the Michigan fire, Americans looked inward to themselves, not outward to the federal government, to assist the victims. They became the most generous people on earth, partly because they knew government had nothing to give except what it taxed away in the first place, and partly because they saw it as a personal responsibility to help their fellow citizens in need. For Michiganians in 1881, this meant an outpouring of help freely given from fellow Americans everywhere. In fact, the Michigan fire became the first disaster relief effort of Clara Barton and the newly formed American Red Cross. As the smoke billowed eastward across the nation, Barton’s home town of Dansville, New York, became a focal point of relief. According to the officers of the Dansville Red Cross, a call from Clara Barton “rallied us to our work.”

“Instantly,” they said, “we felt the help and strength of our organization [the Red Cross], young and untried as it was.” Men, women, and children throughout western New York brought food, clothing, and other gifts. Before the Red Cross would send them to Michigan, a committee of ladies inspected each item and restitched garments or replaced food when necessary.

Speed was important, not only because many were hungry but also because winter was approaching. Bedding and heavy clothing were in demand. Railroads provided the shipping. People left jobs and homes and trekked to Michigan to get personally involved in the rebuilding. Soon the Red Cross in New York and the local relief committees in Michigan were working together to distribute supplies until “no more were needed,” according to the final report from the Red Cross.

The Red Cross assistance was much appreciated. And it made disaster relief faster, more efficient, and national in scope. But even if such help had not come, Michiganians were prepared to organize all relief voluntarily within the state. In a previous fire in 1871, nearly 3,000 Michigan families were left homeless. Governor Henry Baldwin personally organized the relief efforts and gave out of his own pockets about $150,000 (over $3 million in today’s dollars). Few if any thought it necessary to create a federal relief bureaucracy.

Henry Baldwin in 1871 and the Red Cross a decade later fulfilled the true definition of compassion. They suffered together with the fire victims and worked personally to reduce their pain. Perhaps Baldwin, the Red Cross, and the fire victims themselves felt that aid from Washington might dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers who gave their energy and resources out of a sense of brotherly love and duty. And this was in a year when the federal budget had a $100 million surplus, not the $100 billion deficit of today!

Why did so many Americans 100 years ago reject federal aid and insist on personal charity during natural disasters? Horatio Bunce, a farmer/philosopher of the 1800s, spoke for most citizens when he argued that federal aid to disaster victims was not only unconstitutional, but also uncharitable: “If . . . you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper,” he told his congressman, “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.”

Indeed, modern relief efforts of government show all the signs of bearing out Bunce’s admonition. Politicians seem to have a definition of “disaster” that gets more elastic with each passing year. To be eligible for relief disbursements under federal law, an event must “be of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” The term “capabilities” often ends up meaning “willingness.” When federal cash is a prospect, it’s amazing how many state and local politicians think that both their governments and private citizens are “incapable” of getting by without it.

Whereas federal disaster relief used to apply to horrific events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, it also goes now for unfortunate episodes that never were thought of as anything but local and private—severe cold, snowstorms, even the effects of the El Niño current on the West Coast fishing fleet. Two years ago, the governor of Massachusetts asked the president to declare some fishing towns in his state disaster areas because the fish had disappeared.

It is vital that people understand the pre-emptive influence of government relief. There is little reason to believe that politicians are more compassionate or caring than the population that elects them. There is little reason to believe that politicians who are not on the disaster scene and don’t know the families affected will be more knowledgeable about how best to help than those who are on the scene and personally know the victims. There is even less reason to believe that politicians spend other people’s money more effectively than those people to whom it belongs in the first place. Therefore, when government gets involved, there is good reason to believe that much of its effort simply displaces what private people and groups would do better and more cost effectively if government stayed home.

Another, equally vital point should be noted: The lofty status of “disaster relief heroes” is earned every year by thousands of private citizens acting out of their own desire and resources, and whose names and selfless devotion often don’t make headlines. The politicians who show up with other people’s money are in a different category.

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