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Politics, Philanthropy, & Big Bird

October 6, 2012

Do you remember last fall?

The Occupy Movement was born and spread across the United States, the world was still talking about the death of Osama bin Laden, and the Republican primary contest was in full swing. At that time we wrote a blog about comments Mitt Romney made related to what he would cut from the federal budget if elected President. One of those things was the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS).

Fast forward to October 3, 2012… Governor Romney, the Republican candidate for President of the United States, is debating President Obama in the first of three Presidential debates and Romney tells moderator and longtime PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, “I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for us.”

Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook immediately lit up with people stunned and upset by Romney’s comment. The Twitter account @FireBigBird was created and gained over 13,000 followers in less than one hour. And the story continued to play in the national media days after the debate.

Romney’s comment didn’t come as a surprise to us. Living and working in the world of philanthropy, non-profits, and communities we’ve watched the 2012 Presidential Campaign since the beginning and his position on this while running for President has not changed. It has been pushed aside by other issues including the economy, undercover videos, “the 47%,” and myriad other things, but viewing himself as a fiscal conservative Mitt Romney has explicitly said he will cut funding for the arts. He will dramatically reduce funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In an op-ed piece published in USA Today in 2011, Romney described these programs as “not absolutely essential” and said they’re programs that “we don’t need or can’t afford.” These “unneeded” and “unaffordable” programs receive $155 million per year each and are among the smallest agency appropriations in the federal budget.

President Obama shouldn’t be held blameless in this conversation. Early in his term the Obama Administration tried to raise revenue for its spending programs by reducing the charitable deduction for the highest two income-tax brackets by as much as 30%. This plan would have raised the cost per dollar of giving from 65 cents to 72 cents which many economists estimated would have resulted in a 10% reduction in total giving by some of the largest donors in the nation.

Can you put a price on community? On culture? On valuing arts and history? On understanding where we came from and where we’re going? Culture and community are defining features of who we are as a society and we should all pay close attention in the next 30 days to what each candidate is saying and what that will really mean for our respective communities.