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When billionaire Warren Buffett wrote an opinion article in The New York Times this month that called for higher taxes on the wealthy, his proposal was met with a roar from several conservative pundits, who wondered why Buffett didn't just donate his billions to the government.
"If the government's purposes are so vital, why doesn't he simply give the money to the IRS?" an editorial in the Wall Street Journal asked. "If he's worried about being undertaxed, we'd suggest he simply write a big check to Uncle Sam and go back to his day job of picking investments."
Liberals responded to Buffett's critics by saying they had missed the point entirely, because the government's budgetary problems cannot be solved by Buffett handing over his money.
Do people actually donate money to the government beyond what is required in taxes?
Yes. But not many, and not much.
There are several ways citizens can donate to the United States government. The easiest method is to decline all deductions or tax write-offs when you file your taxes. (Buffett, incidentally, takes quite a few deductions.)
If you're feeling more generous, you can write a check to the Financial Management Service, a bureau of the Treasury Department that accepts unconditional gifts "from individuals wishing to express their patriotism to the United States."
If you want your money to specifically help reduce the government's debts, then send your check to the government's (tax-deductible!) Bureau of the Public Debt.
There is also a "conscience fund," run by the Financial Management Service, that is set aside just for people who feel guilty about the time they short-changed Uncle Sam and want to make up for it. (A note of caution: giving to that fund doesn't mean the government will dismiss a past crime.)
A hand up, not a handout
The Financial Management Service has received nearly $1 million in unconditional gifts so far this fiscal year, which ends in September. That's more than a quarter million dollars more than last year, when citizens donated $698,708.40. So far 815 people have sent some sort of payment to the Treasury's general fund. Most of those arrived during tax season, when people returned their refund. Sometimes the check envelopes even include a letter describing in detail just why they were handing over the money.
"They just didn't feel like they were entitled to [a refund], or they didn't want to accept it," Scott Barber, who manages the accounts for the Financial Management Service, said in an interview with The Ticket.
When the government issued tax rebates in 2008, the FMS saw a spike in gifts, collecting more than $3.7 million that year.
"A lot of U.S. citizens decided to return those checks to the U.S. government," Barber said. "We had a few notes that were included in the checks. Some referred to their religious beliefs and not wanting a handout for the government."
Paying more than the minimum
More money goes to the government's fund to reduce the debt, which Congress established in 1961 when a wealthy Texas woman sought a way to donate her millions to the government in her will. The fund has taken in more than $2 million this year. It topped $3 million in 2009.
An ABC News analysis in July, however, found that the $2 million represents just ".0017 percent of the $2.1 billion the United States pays every day just on the interest of that debt."
The Treasury's "conscience fund," available for people "to restore amounts which the donor considers to have been wrongfully acquired or withheld from the Government" and "to ease their conscience from wrongful acts against others" receives the least amount of money. The fund received a little more than $14,000 so far this year, and $25,000 last year. (The fund received more than $380,000 in 1986, according to a 1987 article in The New York Times.)
Guilty souls have sent in checks for all sorts of things, from stolen equipment to postage stamps that were used twice.
No long ago, Treasury officials opened an envelope to find an anonymous letter from a man who had served as an Army line cook during the Vietnam War, Barber said. Before he left the service, the man stashed his ruck sack with a sack of potatoes, some meat and a tub of butter to bring to his family. More than 30 years later, the man tallied up the cost of the goods in today's dollars, stuffed a handful of cash in an envelope with his confession and mailed it off.
While the $3 million in donations to all three funds this year were surely made in good faith, these accounts won't solve the nation's money problems anytime soon. The money is barely a rounding error when put against the federal debt, which surpassed $14 trillion this year.
Not even Warren Buffett can bail us out of this one.