Fortunately, it hasn't happened yet. Americans have shown themselves to be extraordinarily generous with their time and money in the face of too many people in need and not enough resources to take care of them all.
While this generosity has made big difference in the lives of many people, there is a growing sense that individual donors are having to pick up the slack for years of neglect and inaction by our government.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
In 1980, expressions such as "homelessness," "food banks" and "working poor" weren't in the national vocabulary. Soup kitchens, queues for donated food and people begging for spare change were images associated with the Great Depression.
That all changed during the Reagan years. The commitment, begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, to use the power of government to do the greatest good for the greatest number, was slowly abandoned. The largest transfer of wealth since the Roaring Twenties was set into motion, with tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and budget cuts for everybody else except the military.
The programs that help lift millions into the middle class and kept millions of others from slipping into poverty were slowly whittled away. Before long we saw people living on the street or in their cars. Homeless people weren't just winos and drug addicts, but working families who couldn't afford a place to live. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters, once thought of as a relic of the Depression era, returned, as did food lines and panhandlers.
Private charity had to step in to do the jobs that the government stopped doing in the Reagan era. They continue to do so today. But if you look at the history of the Great Depression, you'll see that one reason why Roosevelt's New Deal came to be was the realization that private charity alone was inadequate to deal with the massive economic crisis after the 1929 stock market crash.
The Republicans, however, believe differently. The reverse Robin Hood tactics that have been the party's trademark for the last three decades is illustrated by their unwillingness to repeal Bush's massive tax cuts. Instead, to pay for the war on Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast, the Republicans in Congress want to cut funding for Medicaid and food stamps. Republicans are quite clear in their intense hatred of the poor and their desire to get government out of the business of relief.
The "armies of compassion," as President Bush likes to call them, have their place in relieving the effects of poverty or helping after a natural disaster. But private charity must be seen as a supplement, not a substitute, for a government committed to promoting the general welfare not just for the favored few, but for all Americans.