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Special Olympics does amazing work, but that doesn’t entitle it to government funds

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

Special Olympics is a wonderful organization. For 50 years, it has provided sports training for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Millions of athletes have participated in its competitions, in the process strengthening their bodies, enlarging their confidence, and making new friends. Through its Unified Sports program, which brings players with and without intellectual disabilities together as teammates, Special Olympics promotes social inclusion and understanding for people too often marginalized.

It should come as no surprise that such an admirable organization is generously supported by charitable donations. According to its most recent financial statement, Special Olympics had expenses of about $130 million in 2017, nearly all of which was covered by the more than $113 million in contributions it received that year from private individuals and corporations. (It also reported millions in income from investments, royalties, and accreditation fees.) Special Olympics is thus a shining example of the good works underwritten by American philanthropy — a textbook illustration of how widespread public benefit is made possible by widespread private giving.


Among the host of Special Olympics’ donors is me: For years I have made a modest monthly contribution to support its activities. Though my mite is only a tiny drop in a giant bucket, I’m happy to play even a minuscule part in helping advance the Special Olympics mission of transforming lives through the joy of sport.

But I was dismayed last week to learn that Special Olympics takes money from the federal government.

The issue came up when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee, which was weighing the administration’s 2020 budget request for the Education Department — a budget request that included eliminating a $17.6 million subsidy to Special Olympics.

Democrats homed in on the proposed cut, raking DeVos over the coals. Representative Barbara Lee of California blasted her for “go[ing] after disabled children.” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said she deserved an “Olympic gold medal for insensitivity.”


DeVos protested in vain that she has no interest in harming Special Olympics and has “personally supported its mission.” In fact, she donates one-fourth of her salary as a Cabinet member to Special Olympics — a $50,000 annual gift. Yet that didn’t stop members of Congress from accusing her of heartlessness. “It’s cruel, it’s misguided, and it’s outrageous,” said Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose great-aunt Eunice Shriver was the organization’s founder.

Of course the budget cut went nowhere. On Thursday, President Trump tweeted that he had “overridden my people” and ordered the subsidy restored. Whereupon DeVos let it be known that the cut hadn’t been her idea to begin with, and that she had defended it only because she’d been instructed to.

It was all another depressing reminder of why the federal budget is such a bloated sack of irresponsibility.

In Washington, popularity and good intentions are all the reason needed to spend taxpayer dollars. Time and again, politicians choose to keep appropriating dollars the government doesn’t have rather than take heat for closing the spigot.

Special Olympics unquestionably makes the world a better place. It brings joy and meaning to innumerable lives. But that doesn’t entitle it to government money.


Before the administration flipped, DeVos had it right. “Special Olympics is not a federal program,” she argued. “It’s a private organization. . . . There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But . . . the federal government cannot fund every worthy program.”

Again: In 2017 Special Olympics attracted more than $113 million from willing donors. An organization that can motivate private giving on such a scale has no business being at the public trough. Something can be uplifting without being Washington’s responsibility.

I wish Kennedy had reacted to the original budget proposal not by denouncing it, but by encouraging private givers to replace the federal subsidy with increased generosity. I wish he had begun by thanking DeVos for her lavish personal support of Special Olympics, then announced a campaign to raise $18 million to make it even stronger. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be glad to increase my contribution to Special Olympics to help free it from dependence on Big Brother.

Any charity that can raise well over $100 million each year should not be extracting money from the Treasury.

For 50 years Special Olympics has promoted independence, self-respect, and mutual support. It inspires legions of givers and volunteers. It would inspire even more of them by living up to its own philosophy, kicking away its federal crutch, relying on the love and goodwill of its friends, and discovering how much higher it can fly.


This column is adapted from the current issue of Arguable, Jeff Jacoby’s free weekly e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, click here.