WASHINGTON — Charities, which are the largest deliverers of social services in the United States, coped with President Reagan's 1981 cuts and shifts in federal spending largely by imposing or increasing fees on those they serve, a pioneering study has found.
But the use of new or higher fees is not possible for all social-service charities, and thus many charities that serve the poor, and to a lesser extent children, have been forced to cut their programs or to reduce access to their services.
In addition, government maintained or increased financial support to charities serving the oldest Americans while cutting its spending to those serving children and youth.
These findings come from a $1-million-per-year study, begun three years ago, into the impacts of the budget cuts and spending shifts that President Reagan persuaded Congress to make in 1981.
Teams of researchers directed by Urban Institute economist Lester Salamon have, for the first time, developed a detailed picture of the interaction between government at all levels and charities in providing social services.
"What our work has demonstrated is that the nonprofit sector is far bigger and more important than the popular images suggest," Salamon said, adding that the data show "we do not have a welfare state, but a very elaborate network of government-nonprofit partnerships.
"These findings present a fundamental challenge to the concept most of our government policy-makers have of government-provided social services," Salamon said. "This is in no sense a new phenomenon, going back to the earliest years (of the nation), but it has not been recognized by policy-makers."
The image the researchers developed by studying 3,400 private, voluntary organizations, such as those typically belonging to United Way, in 12 urban centers and four rural areas reveals that, contrary to widely held beliefs, charities do not rely principally on donations and for the most part serve the middle and upper classes and not the poor.
Government provides 41% of the studied charities' funds. Fees bring in another 28%.
Together, government and fees provide nearly 3 1/2 times as much money as donations, which provide 21% of the charities' revenue, the data show. Endowment earnings, sales of products and special fund-raising events supply the remaining 10%.
Another way to look at charities is how many of them get income from the principal sources: government, fees and donations.
The study shows that fees are charged by 70% of the social-service charities studied. More charities get at least part of their income from fees than get government money or donations, the researchers found. Salamon said this dispels the widely held notion that donations are the economic engines driving most charities.
The Urban Institute studies also suggest that social-welfare charities most dependent on federal funds are not in the major cities of the Northeast, but in the South and West, where popular support for reduced government social-services spending is strongest.
The reason, the researchers said, may be that in the older Eastern cities the infrastructure of charitable institutions, including fund raising, is stronger.
Excluding Medicare, the national health-care program for the elderly, government support of charities declined 6% from 1981 to 1982, the study found, while government support of its own social-service programs declined only 4%, the study shows.
Fewer than half of the charities studied said the poor made up 10% or more of their clients. Only 30% of the charities said half of their clients are poor.
"The (charitable) sector does not, contrary to widely held assumptions, fundamentally focus on the poor," Salamon said.
These and other findings from three years of work were sifted through recently when the two dozen researchers gathered here to examine the implications of their findings.
Salamon said he is thinking of turning his attention next to fees and how they shape access to social services.
Interpreting the Data
Most of the researchers at the two-day gathering said they interpret the data they collected as an ominous indicator of severe future economic and social problems for America because of the way the spending cuts were made.
Much of the researchers' concern focused on the maintenance and, in some cases, growth of support for charities serving the elderly and the cuts in programs to help children and youth.
"The agencies most heavily hit in terms of government cuts were legal services, housing and community development, employment and training, social services and multipurpose agencies that combine several purposes," Salamon said, adding that no attempt was made to evaluate the quality of social-service programs or to determine which are effective.