Julia Altemus Commentary: “A SEASON OF GOOD DEEDS DONE”

In the early 1940’s, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, hoping to spur holiday buying by adding a week to the season. Many Americans resisted the change to their traditional holiday, and when it had no effect on sales, Thanksgiving soon returned to the fourth Thursday of November, where it remains today. However, Thanksgiving Day came yearly this year, in fact on the earliest possible date on the calendar that it could have occurred.

That means we now are in the midst of the longest possible shopping season between “Black Friday”, “Cyber Monday” and Christmas. However, another – lesser known – special day was on the holiday calendar this year, but with an entirely different purpose. “Giving Tuesday”, a project by non-profit charitable groups, hoped to carve out a day encouraging Americans to turn their thoughts to the less fortunate and pledge gifts to worthy causes. Having debuted on November 27, “Giving Tuesday” has gathered momentum. Americans pledged more than $10 million, as well as volunteered time and donated goods to over 2,000 non-profit groups on that day. “Giving Tuesday” hopes to bring back attention to the deeper meaning for the season.

According to the Urban Institute, an estimated “2.3 million non-profit organizations operate in the United States, an increase of 24 percent from 2000. The non-profit sector contributed $805 billion to the U.S. economy in 2010, making up 5.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2010, public charities, the largest component of the non-profit sector, reported $1.5 trillion in revenue, and $2.7 trillion in assets. In 2011, private charitable contributions, which include giving to public charities and religious congregations, totaled $300 billion. In 2011, 27 percent of adults in the United States volunteered with an organization. Volunteers contributed 15 billion hours, worth an estimated $296 billion.”

These are staggering figures. Giving back to our community or helping a neighbor has long been an important part of our culture. Montanans reported giving on average 4 percent of their salary to charities in 2010, ranking us 23rd in the nation for charitable giving. Not bad for a state that consistently ranks 48th for annual adjusted gross income or gross domestic product.

For decades, Montana’s forest products industry, which includes corporate wood manufacturers, family-owned sawmill operations, logging contractors, log haulers and their employees, has helped provide local affordable housing, supported education efforts, the arts, culture, athletics, and youth programs. Just to name a few specifics, RY Timber donated $50,000 to the Townsend Hospital Foundation and the Montana Logging Association’s Log a Load for Kids raised over $300,000 since 1996 for the Shodair Children’s Hospital in Montana.

However, the fine print in the current fiscal debate proposes to once again cap or otherwise limit deductions in order to raise tax revenues. Concerned that special tax benefits offered as encouragement to give to charity might be significantly curtailed, a non-profit consortium met with the White House last week and “laid out their fears predicting lost revenues and abrogated programs, even if donations only dip at the margins.” At stake is the $300 billion that we donate to non-profits every year, at an annual cost to the government of $50 billion.

Both republicans and democrats say they want to maintain tax laws that encourage Americans to give money to non-profit groups. But with the White House looking to raise an additional $1.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years, and the republicans looking to raise $800 billion, there is growing bipartisan support for peeling back the 1917 federal tax code. If the benefit is repealed, who is going to pick up the slack? Certainly not the government.

There is no doubt that charities and politics certainly are not perfect together. However, the charitable deduction is the only deduction that directly impacts communities. So, one might argue that now is not the right time to divorce politics from charity. Instead, what we need most during this “crisis of confidence” in our congressional leaders is a season of good deeds done. We need a season to pause and cherish and acknowledge our own and all efforts that promote peace and goodwill.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus. Happy holidays and good giving.

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