08/14/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

With Romney and Ryan 'on the Same Page,' What Page Are Charities On?

With his selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate, Mitt Romney changed the stakes of the 2012 presidential race. Well beyond Republican v. Democrat, the question now before Americans is who we are as a nation and as a people.

We must make decisions about public responsibility for the common good, about what we expect of government and of one another. The charitable and philanthropic sector cannot afford to ignore this debate.

The "Ryan Budget," developed by the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee and pushed by him through the House of Representatives, reflects many of Romney's own policy notions. It would quickly have a horrific effect on many nonprofit and foundation concerns, beginning with those serving low- and moderate-income people. Ultimately, though, it would affect each and every area of government support for charitable causes.

Nonprofit leaders must help people understand the implications of the Ryan budget. By 2050, it is estimated by the nonpartisan and widely respected Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Ryan's plan would leave no money for most of the federal government beyond Social Security, health care and defense.

The implications for nonprofits and foundations are huge. In the aggregate, from the arts to zoology and everything in between, nonprofit organizations depend on government for about a third of their annual revenue. Foundations can't make up for these missing dollars; they would have to increase grant-making more than tenfold to compensate for Republicans' actions. And individual giving, especially from people who feel hard-pressed by their own economic circumstances, isn't going to replace a government that withdraws from most of its long-recognized responsibilities.

After announcing his running mate, candidate Romney issued a statement trying to distance himself a bit from that budget although previously he said it was "marvelous," that he was "very supportive" of it, and stated that he was "on the same page" with Ryan. Charities are prohibited involvement in electoral politics, but helping to shape a public discussion about values and policy is essential -- nonprofit and foundation leaders must say which page they are on.

In considering their response, it is important for charities to remember that Mitt Romney has himself already proposed similar policies. For instance, the nonpartisan and well regarded Tax Policy Center concludes that Romney's detail-deprived proposal for reform would give the wealthiest Americans a large tax cut while actually imposing tax increases on the remaining 95 percent of us.

This parallels the Ryan budget which would cut tax revenues by $4 trillion over its first ten years and even more into the future. These breaks would give million-dollar-a-year earners and others of wealth an additional $265,000 annually on top of the $129,000 Republicans insist on saving each of them by continuing all of the Bush tax cuts.

In spite of its draconian spending cuts and self-justifying rhetoric, the Ryan budget will actually increase the deficit by $3.1 trillion between now and 2022, according to the House Budget Committee's own projections. The CBO says that the Ryan plan wouldn"t balance the federal budget until about 2040.

And what are these draconian cuts? Starting with nonprofits concerned about health and aging, let's look at Medicare. The Ryan budget calls for this government program to eventually be changed into a voucher-style subsidy for people to buy more expensive medical insurance in the private market. A CBO analysis found that the typical Medicare beneficiary would face an additional $6,400 in annual costs by 2022, although Ryan has tried to tweak his plan to lower that cost since the report.

Furthermore, according to that analysis, Ryan moves eligibility from age 65 to 67, creating a two year gap when people would not have access to either Medicare or to the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges. What do these changes portend for already over-stretched charities and foundations caring for this ever-growing population?

Although the Ryan cuts go still further, next comes an extraordinary assault on programs that serve low-income people. Poverty continues to grow, estimated to have climbed to as much as 15.7 percent of Americans for 2011, the highest level since 1965, and now affects over 47 million of us. People living in abject conditions, earning less than half of the official poverty level, remain at or near the peak of 6.7 percent. Yet, the Republican budget shreds the social safety net.

Over 60 percent of Ryan's budget cutting -- at least $3.3 trillion -- comes from government and nonprofit programs that serve the poor and those now falling from the middle class. Not counting the Medicare cuts, over $2.4 trillion of that total would be sliced from funding for other health initiatives for low- and moderate-income people. Cuts in food stamps would account for another $134 billion, denying assistance to between eight and ten million hungry people.

Other cuts in mandatory low-income programs for education, training, employment and social services are estimated to total more than $463 billion and discretionary programs in the same areas face $291 billion in still additional cuts. Think what it means, for instance, to gut the Pell Grant program and deny a million low- and moderate-income students the tuition help they require when higher education is supposed to be the route to economic self-sufficiency. What are nonprofits and foundations supposed to do to make up for this retreat by government?

Beyond Medicare and safety net programs, the Ryan Budget wreaks havoc in most other areas of concern to charities and the larger public. Agriculture and food safety, the environment, education, highways and transportation, medical and scientific research and other initiatives are on the chopping block, as are veterans' programs, water supply, national parks, border patrol, law enforcement, and initiatives in every area of government except total defense.

Even Newt Gingrich labeled the Ryan budget "right-wing social engineering" and said that he didn't think that "imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate." But that is exactly what confronts charities and foundations today. Radical ideological policy made by "Republican Social Darwinists," as Robert Reich has characterized them, cannot remain unchallenged by nonprofit organizations and those who support them.

But what can charities and foundations do in the middle of a partisan election campaign? First, their leaders can speak forcefully about the essential role of government in their areas of programmatic concern.

While they may fear controversy, especially with their wealthier supporters, there is a great deal of polling data to show that nonprofit leaders would immediately find a supportive audience on many of these tax and program funding issues. A factual presentation on the Ryan budget and an invocation of shared American values will bring even more support to the policy positions which charities must advocate.

Second, across their myriad missions, charities and foundations must invest in voter registration, voter education, and get-out-the-vote campaigns focused on their service consumers and other constituencies, and on volunteers, staff and members of their larger communities -- these are all permissible charitable activities (see They must help people to better understand the fundamental issues that confront them about the role of government and its importance in each and every area of concern to nonprofits and themselves. Charities and foundations must help people to participate actively in our democracy at this critical juncture.

In 2012, Americans will do more than pick a president, vice president and legislative officials. They will determine whether or not we honor and share responsibility for one another and ourselves. Charities and foundations have everything to lose.

Versions of this piece appear in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and PhilanTopic.