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JEFF JACOBY

Kerry's charity gap

Weld contributes far more money to the needy

'Can you tell us, from your heart, why you think people are poor?'' The question was asked during the recent television debate between Sen. John Kerry and Gov. William Weld.

This was Kerry's reply:

''As I have gone around this state and been privileged to sit in somebody's kitchen and listen to them talk about their problems, what I learn is that people are poor because the deck is really stacked against them. Because people like the governor fight even raising the minimum wage.. . . Because they don't get the breaks that a lot of wealthy people in this country get. [Because] of the Washington of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans that I am fighting -- a Washington that will cut $270 billion of Medicare so they can give a $245 billion tax break, most of which goes to people who are wealthy. And that's what stacks the odds against people, and that's what's wrong.''

Pop-up RELATED GRAPHIC: The comparison

Like many Democrats, Kerry excels at compassion rhetoric. His campaign literature abounds with references to all the good causes he supports: assistance for the elderly, jobs for at-risk teen-agers, treatment for sick veterans, aid to struggling fishermen, even baseball for handicapped kids. When he formally announced for reelection last month, he described the campaign as a clash between those who advocate ''turning against each other and those who still believe we can triumph by turning to each other.''

But is a laundry list of the government programs Kerry endorses really the best test of his compassion? Does Weld's position on taxes or the minimum wage truly demonstrate that he is heartless toward the unfortunate? How should voters decide which candidate genuinely believes in ''turning to each other'' -- and which candidate doesn't?

One measure of a man's character is the way he spends his money. Since Kerry and Weld both make a practice of releasing their tax returns, it is possible for us to draw some conclusions about each man's personal financial priorities.

Last year, Weld (and his wife) reported adjusted gross income of $110,418. Of that total, the Welds gave $24,010 -- almost 22 percent -- to charity. They gave to the United Way and the Episcopal Church, to Rosie's Place and Globe Santa, to Harvard College and Mt. Auburn Hospital, to Catholic Charities and the Keene Valley Library, to the Salvation Army and the Special Olympics. All told, they contributed to nearly three dozen charitable institutions great and small.

Kerry's income in 1995 was somewhat higher than Weld's -- $126,179. But the amount he reported giving to charity was considerably lower. He didn't give anything. Zero dollars, zero cents.

Zero compassion?

1995 was not atypical. One year earlier, the governor made $106,656, and gave away 24 percent to the worthy and the needy. The senator made $127,884 and gave away 1.6 percent. In 1993, when Kerry's income topped $130,000, his reported gifts to charity added up to $175. The Welds, who made $162,315 that year, donated $28,194.

Over the past six years, Weld has reported gross income totaling $1,082,875, of which 15.2 percent has gone to charity. Kerry's six-year total income is $724,042; according to his federal tax returns, he earmarked just under seven-10ths of 1 percent for charitable contributions. When Kerry (or any candidate) declares that the deck is stacked against the poor, is it not fair to ask how much he has personally given to help unstack the deck? In Kerry's case, the answer seems to be: next to nothing.

It's one thing to talk about compassion and sitting in poor people's kitchens and supporting this or that government program. Quite another to write a personal check to the Good Samaritan Hospice. (Or, for that matter, to spend time delivering Meals on Wheels or volunteering in a homeless shelter.) Only in politics do men call themselves ''compassionate'' for voting to spend other people's money. And only in politics are people who earn a lot and give away a lot denounced as ''greedy.''

Conceivably, Kerry is a secret philanthropist whose modesty won't let him take credit for his donations. More likely, he simply disdains private giving and volunteering. He evidently doesn't regard it as a political liability to be releasing tax returns that show a blank in the space marked ''Gifts to Charity.'' If he did, he would have found some charitable endeavor -- a food pantry, a hospital, the Disabled American Veterans, something -- to help. What kind of candidate is it who not only is selfish with his private funds, but doesn't care who knows it?

In his April announcement speech, Kerry mocked the notion that serious problems can be solved without statism.

''It may be fashionable to say: Let the private sector take care of everything,'' he said. ''But will the private sector stop pollution? Raise the minimum wage? Education our youngsters? Provide health care for all?'' Not if it has to depend on the generosity of people like Kerry, it won't.

Of course Kerry has his virtues. But there is something very wrong with a man who makes more than $120,000 a year and gives only scraps to help those who are less fortunate than he. Perhaps John Kerry should shelve the sermons on how rich Republicans are cheating the poor. At least until his own heart thaws. 

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