The Role of Redistribution to the Poor in Federal Tax Exemption for Charities

John D. Colombo

University of Illinois College of Law


Annual Conference of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law, New York, NY, 2009

Over the past several years, many commentators have suggested that federal tax exemption for charities should be limited to organizations that help the poor – that is, organizations with a redistributive mission. This paper reviews and comments on three areas of existing federal exemption law where the redistribution view either already controls tax benefits or is being pushed by policy makers as a change to existing law: the push for a charity care standard for exempting nonprofit hospitals, the current university endowment debate, and a hodge-podge of rulings relating to what I will call “middle class charity” in which the IRS has denied exemption to nonprofit organizations providing services to the middle class (as opposed to the poor). Part I provides a brief introduction to the history of the redistribution concept in federal exemption under 501(c)(3) prior to the current regulations introduced in 1959. Part II then provides a summary of current law and proposals in the three areas described above (nonprofit hospitals, programs aimed at the middle class, and university endowments). Part III then turns to some analysis and observations. The main observations are (1) that the redistributive push in the areas identified by this paper is almost certainly bad policy and inconsistent with the IRS’s supposed adoption of the broad common-law view of charity in the 1959 regulations; (2) that the redistributive paradigm seems to pop up most in areas where the organizations in question carry on activities that look very similar to commercial enterprises – in other words, what we may be seeing is the use of the redistribution paradigm to help distinguish charitable services from ordinary for-profit business; (3) limiting the definition of charitable for tax exemption purposes to relief of the poor is inconsistent with the historical definition of charity; and (4) the effort to limit the scope of tax exemption/deductibility to redistribution to the poor is inconsistent with virtually all the theories proposed to explain tax exemption and essentially adopts one particular view of distributive justice that may not be appropriate in formulating tax benefits for charities. Until tax policy chooses an underlying rationale for charitable tax exemption, however, the inconsistencies in applying exemption are likely to continue.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 28

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Date posted: November 7, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Colombo, John D., The Role of Redistribution to the Poor in Federal Tax Exemption for Charities (2009). Annual Conference of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law, New York, NY, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2350493 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2350493

Contact Information

John David Colombo (Contact Author)
University of Illinois College of Law ( email )
504 East Pennsylvania Avenue
232 Law Building
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217-333-7985 (Phone)
217-244-1478 (Fax)

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