Is it OK for Rich People to Shop at Thrift Stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army?

These stores don’t do income checks. Anyone can walk in and buy things. But at least some people feel that since the intent is to offer goods for poor people, buying from Goodwill prevents those people from getting a chance at those goods.

I would argue that for-profit thrift stores are certainly OK. The point of such stores is not to help poor people. It is to provide a low-cost option to the general public.

Goodwill is a non-profit though. In its case, I think it’s worth looking at its mission.

Goodwill San Francisco says

People donate their gently used stuff to us, we sell it in our stores, and we use the money we raise to open doorways for local people who need jobs but lack job skills and opportunities. We focus on the folks in the greatest need who are ready to transform their lives, and offer a hand up, not a handout. This year, more than 600 people will get jobs through SFGoodwill

I don’t see any reference to the idea that they would like to sell goods only to poor people. It sounds like they could fulfill their mission just fine by reselling gently used Mercedes to rich people. Or smartphones.

This letter by Goodwill CEO Jim Gibbons communicates the same sentiment. The same goes for Goodwill’s About Us page. The accomplishments they list are all about job programs for their targeted beneficiaries, not about selling goods to poor people.

Here is their IRS Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax form. I did not read it line by line, but it also seems to indicate that Goodwill considers itself foremost a jobs program, with no specific desire to give poor people a cheaper place to shop.

I’m not able to easily find clear guidance about the Salvation Army as easily, but it seems they use their stores’ profits to fund their alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs.

Photo credit: Albert Herring

Photo credit: Albert Herring

If the rich make sure they don’t shop at the Salvation Army, they are ensuring that the costs of such programs are funded solely with profits raised from selling things to poor people. When put that way, rich people refusing to shop there actually comes across as awful.

By shopping in these places, it seems you are supporting the business that funds programs to help people in what at least superficially straightforward, unobjectionable ways.

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115 thoughts on “Is it OK for Rich People to Shop at Thrift Stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army?

  1. When we were little, my mom always kept a “good will” bag for us to put stuff in. I didn’t realize that it was intended for Good Will. I just thought we were generating “good will”. Oh how naive! But when I understood the company was intended to help poor folk, I assumed the clothes and stuff went to the poor people. Again, how naive. When I learned that the goods were sold and the proceeds went to different programs, I had a much better understanding of the endeavor and it never occurred to me that wealthy people shouldn’t shop there. If anything, that might be a good thing: more demand and more money flowing into the stores can allow for higher prices and better funding of their programs. And if this causes people who rely on the stores for cheap goods to be outpriced, allow for a means-tested membership system.

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  2. Gotta admit i’ve never heard anyone say people with bucks shouldn’t buy used clothes or used anything. The unnamed person in the link who was against shopping at Goodwill was coming at from the snob angle more than anything else. Pretty much all the comments were fine with shopping at GW or SA. So i’m not sure there is much of an argument against it. The Wife and i went to SA a couple weeks ago looking for something she needed but they didn’t’ have it so she ended up buying a new item. Not really a big deal.

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    • I have also not heard anyone say “Middle class twenty somethings shouldn’t shop at Goodwill”

      I do think there are certain reasons for doing so that raise eyebrows. If you think you are not contributing to the problem of sweatshop labor by shopping second-hand, you have a bit of motivated reasoning going on.

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      • It’s better than buying things that horribly scar the child workers, ain’t it?
        And that’s better than letting the kids starve, isn’t it?

        I’m the first to speak of buying what won’t wear out, and if you choose to use the rest of the money for “charity” well, more power to you.

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        • Kim you are missing my point. The issue is that people who buy used clothing are still contributing to child labor and sweatshops, they are just trying to do so in a less direct kind of way to feel less bad.

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          • The link between buying second hand and contributing to child labor is pretty thin. Once the new product has been made and sold, the original makers don’t’ care and don’t know what happens to the product. If buying used means one less new product is bought then you aren’t contributing to continued sweat shop labor.

            On a more general note i dont’ think a lot of the Buying Well will change the world. It’s not bad and i’m all for being careful about what you buy. Humorously lefties, who are often into moral shopping also get branded at socialist etcs. But there is nothing more in love with capitalism then thinking you can save the world buy shopping.

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          • The issue is that people who buy used clothing are still contributing to child labor and sweatshops

            Uh, no.

            Purchasing something used not only doesn’t contribute to any harm caused by the production, it *anti*-contributes. The most stuff is reused, the less it has to be made.

            Now, there is an argument that they should have, instead, purchased a non-sweatshop item new, which would have left the cheaper item for someone else to buy instead of buying a new one and forcing the sweatshop to make one.

            But by that logic, the same amount of indirectness applies to merely throwing away any item of clothing (Sweatshop or otherwise), because that could instead have gone to the hands of someone who will now buy a sweatshop thing. Most people would not assert that is contributing to child labor and sweatshops.

            I also would like some evidence people who think about this sort of thing are *correctly* able to distinguish child-labor and sweatshop produced stuff in the first place.

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  3. “You can’t be shopping there, dude!! Those stores are for POOR PEOPLE ONLY!!!” That’s what I freakin’ hear every time I walk into a Salvation Army or Goodwill now, ever since a friend yelled at me a good 10 years ago.

    I think you meant at least one person ten years ago may have felt that way, or may have been fucking with her friend, or hell, it sounds more likely that she was saying, “You’re too good for that store.”

    I think that’s important, because I can’t imagine there are many, and perhaps there aren’t any, people who shop at those stores who think that. I mean, I imagine if there were a shortage of quality items in there, people might get upset that people who could afford such items elsewhere were taking the only inexpensive versions, but as it is? What a strange, manufactured conflict.

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    • I see from the comments, however, that despite no evidence that anyone, anywhere thinks that rich people shouldn’t shop at Goodwill because it hurts the poor, the folks for whom the existence of such a sentiment perfectly matches their beliefs about a certain political set are eating that shit up.

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      • Well, one rich person believed it at one point, or at least bawled her friend out over the notion, and I’m pretty sure that there are commenters who scan the Internet vigilantly in hopes they can rush in and chivalrously defend the honor of wealthy people against imagined slights against them.

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        • There were such white knights of the rich in the comments over there.

          However, I’m not even sure his friend believed it either:

          Add that to a little racism in her blood, and the idea of walking INTO a thrift store, nonetheless BUYING something from one, comes with a pretty hefty stigma. Hence, her idea that “only poor people go shopping there.” (Mix this with her impression that whites don’t belong there, and you can see where she’s going with this whole thing. And why we’re no longer friends.) I do, however, give her credit for continuously dropping off donations every year. At least she’s good at giving back.

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  4. My retired in laws do a lot of volunteering with ReStore which is part of habitat for humanity. It is a used/thrift store for construction materials and appliances. Plenty of people of all incomes seem to use them. It’s a good deal for everybody.

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    • Somehow it never occurred to me to ask the same question about ReStore. Maybe because I only heard about that as an adult, and it was probably someone of a similar economic class telling me to go there for whatever it was I was asking about.

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  5. Relevant. Actually, it is relevant, not just humorous — the thrift shop, to its customer, is a place where something unusual can be bought for a small amount of money. Whether it’s a charitable organization, and what the charitable purpose is or not, that’s the business model. And such a business model includes an appeal to middle-class customers (including but not limited to Mackelmore).

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  6. There’s also no shortage whatsoever of used good. Most of the donated clothes will be exported for rags, many without ever getting into the shop itself.

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  7. I understand this isn’t news to most of you, but my story follows Kazzy’s. I grew up thinking I was donating things so that poor people could use them. I didn’t know I was actually donating so anyone who wanted could use them and the profits were actually what was used to help run jobs programs.

    The backstory for this, by the way, was that I wanted a suit for an interview. I didn’t know before researching it whether Goodwill suits were intended for people who otherwise might not be able to afford them or also for people like me who just don’t want to buy something brand new that will only be used once. I searched, but couldn’t find anything within spitting distance of my size that wasn’t a really worn out plaid tweed suit.

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  8. Thrift stores for rich people are usually called consignment shops. Some clothing stores allow people to drop off clothing, jewelry, and accessories that they are no longer interested at the stores. These stores would than sell the used clothing and give you a percentage of the profits. Clothing that was still in the store after a certain amount of time without being sold had to be picked up or it becomes the property of the store.

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  9. What is the difference between shopping at Goodwill over shopping at a regular used clothing store like Buffalo Exchange or Wasteland (might be local to SF)? Or a Consignment store?

    What is the difference between shopping at a new v. used book store?

    I think there are a lot of issues going.

    1. There is a weird bunch of years post college where you are middle-class by upbringing by proxy but living not small incomes for many people. Many of these people will enter the middle class and upper-middle class but they do spend sometime in a form of genteel poverty. This is a strange economic area that is not fully explored or talked about. Should these people shop in terms of their future or current status? What is the status of someone who grew up comfortably in an upper-middle class suburb but is currently making 40,000 a year as an admin assistant in a hedge fund or film company?

    2. There are lots of reasons that people shop in thrift stores like Goodwill and/or Used Clothing Stores. People who are patient and really in the know can find expensive clothing brands at really affordable prices. Others think of it as a form of anti-consumerism and maybe even slumming it. Buying an old army field jacket from a Salvation Army or Goodwill seems to be a rite of passage for a certain subset of middle-class teenager or twenty-something (I might be showing my age here but I do remember the years of people really liking to dress like Daria with a plaid skirt, t-shirt, army field jacket, and doc martens). There is also a kind of semi-ethical consumerism going on as in “If I buy it second-hand, the Made in Bangladesh label doesn’t count”.

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    • Since my failed attempt at buying a suit, my wife has gone back to Goodwill three or four times, each time getting a bunch of silly things for the littlest Bath. At least some of them have been solid buys of things that wouldn’t make sense to buy new, e.g. a $15 backyard slide.

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      • There is also that. I personally find used clothing is a lot more difficult for guys than women. The guys stuff tends to be older, more obviously out of fashion, and in very odd sizes.

        A suit is also a great investment piece*. A good suit is worth the investment. I’d go to a Department Store and not men’s warehouse. I’d also get it properly tailored.

        *You can get good sales on suits but they are still expensive. Try hitting outlet stores or Barney’s Warerhouse for suits.

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            • I was hoping, perhaps naively that would fall under the radar. At some point I decided I’d like to have a regular job again. I miss having coworkers and a team. The job I applied for is something I’d be good at and enjoy, though it doesn’t use my degree. It’s within biking distance of my house too, so that’s nice. I’m not sure of its effects positive or negative on the littlest Bath. The traditionalist part of me thinks maybe she should have a Dad who is Responsible and Has A Job. There’s another part that thinks that’s stupid and a Dad who walks her to the park every morning is much more fun.

              It might be a moot point though. They contacted me immediately after getting my resume, scheduled a first interview, and then quickly brought me in for a second. But that was now three weeks ago. They said they are still making their decisions and will let me know as they are made, but I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t too worried about losing me.

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              • They contacted me immediately after getting my resume, scheduled a first interview, and then quickly brought me in for a second. But that was now three weeks ago. They said they are still making their decisions and will let me know as they are made, but I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t too worried about losing me.

                Hmmm. I don’t know why, exactly, but this gives me the strong impression that you didn’t interview them hard enough — not just show if you pass their standards, but if they pass yours.

                For what it’s worth, with a grain of salt.

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                  • I’m not really sure; sometimes I just get this tingle of knowing; sort of like spidey sense. I also suspect you and I have this quality in common of being strong and articulate in introducing ourselves, but (I’m not quite sure this is exactly right, but it’s close enough to give essence,) we’re more laid back after a bit of knowing and comfort; the dynamic person they first meet seems missing second time around, maybe?

                    Freelancing, this was something I had to be very aware of doing; sort of keeping myself in a higher gear after the first impression until the editor had a better sense of me.

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                    • That does seem possible. My wife thinks I can often come across as disinterested, and maybe that’s something I’m able to consciously counter at the beginning but not maintain through multiple interviews. I’m not sure there’s much of a solution to that than practice. Thanks for expanding.

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                      • It helped me to always go to the second and third conversations as if they were still the first, still the introduction. Without that, I think I might have given the impression on the second and third that the initial impression was a fabrication and somehow inauthentic. Mostly, it’s a mind game I had to play with myself, they are still meeting me; and I needed to keep that clearly in focus.

                        I think this may have something to do with the ability to quickly assimilate a lot of information, too.

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    • Saul Degraw: What is the difference between shopping at Goodwill over shopping at a regular used clothing store like Buffalo Exchange or Wasteland (might be local to SF)?

      Several differences! At least here in the Land of Bath, Goodwill is much more than just clothing. The only clothing we got there was for the littlest Bath since we presume she’ll grow out of it quickly anyway. There is a for-profit used clothes store downtown, but it only has women’s clothes, and it’s all really nice, expensive stuff.

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    • “What is the difference between shopping at Goodwill over shopping at a regular used clothing store”?

      Well, as the OP explains, a Goodwill (or SA, or other non-profit thrift store) must donate X% of its profits to charity, else lose its tax-preferred status (at which point it would just be a regular used-clothing store).

      Thrift stores are pretty cool, but they are not as easy to run as they once were. Brand-new goods can be had so cheaply from the Wal-Marts of the world, that many people don’t bother to shop at the thrift store anymore (where the selection is spotty, both figuratively and sometimes literally); on the flipside, some of that Wal-Mart stuff is MADE so cheaply, that it doesn’t survive long enough to go out of fashion and get donated, so it just goes in the trash instead.

      You have a lot of the logistics problems of a regular new-merch store (you need trucks to go around and pick up donations, and you need to prime the truck routes so that people know to donate, and you need to advertise, etc., etc.) but you are ALSO very dependent on the luck of the draw in terms of the merch you receive (you can’t just order more of whatever happens to be selling right now, and you can’t go back to that route you just hit too soon).

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        • There’s an AVClub gimmick commenter who’s called “Mr. Literal” or something like that, who always responds straight-faced to sarcasm or jokes or hyperbole or rhetorical questions in comments.

          Inevitably, someone responds to his “clueless” responses, before grasping his username. Hilarity ensues.

          I don’t like him QUITE as much as “Guy Posting In The Wrong Thread”, though, whose comments are always very articulate and interesting, yet obviously completely-inapplicable to the topic at hand; they make you wish you were privy to whatever conversation he MEANT to be contributing to.

          Also, after a long absence, “Elegant Victorian Lady” returned, and promptly fainted dead away.

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          • Corwin Haught • 5 days ago
            Nothing about the sexual misconduct allegations circulating on Gawker?

            Mr. Literal Corwin Haught • 5 days ago
            I guess you were too busy to read the review. I have, and I can tell you there was nothing about any sexual misconduct allegations circulating on Gawker or otherwise. I hope that helps.

            I love that comment so much I may begin to emulate Mr. Literal.

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              • HBO picks up David Fincher’s Living On Video, probably

                Guy Posting in Wrong Thread 22 days ago
                Here’s something nobody ever mentions about The Phantom Menace: If C3PO was made by Anakin, then that means that Luke and C3PO are actually brothers!

                I am dying over here.

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                • There’s actually a recent gimmick commenter that’s called “Commenter Who Doesn’t Get Gimmicks” or something like that, who calls out OTHER gimmick commenters for, say, plagiarism/impersonation, if the gimmick is quoting something or purporting to be someone famous. Stuff like that. It’s sort of a specific type of “Mr. Literal”, but aimed at other gimmicks.

                  So for example, there’s another gimmick commenter called “Seinfeld Quote Generator” that responds to posts with, you guessed it, lines from Seinfeld; then, “Commenter Who Doesn’t Get Gimmicks” points out that that was a line from Seinfeld, not an original comment.

                  It’s crazy to me, how meta the jokes over there get.

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  10. I shop at Goodwill all the time, and I am definitely not poor. I love Goodwill. I love the people who work at Goodwill stores, too; many have become friends.

    I do not feel the least bit bad about it, either; most of the stuff inside the stores has a very short shelf life in the store, clothing, particularly, ends up bailed and shipped to other countries, and there’s more coming in all the time.

    But I also take stuff to Goodwill when I’m done using it. I have a Goodwill membership card.

    But most of all, it’s the people who work there; I enjoy them very much, and that really is the company’s mission.

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  11. My assumption is that any given thing that I encounter at Goodwill recently belonged to someone who is now dead.

    The ethical questions for me involve issues related to the dignity involved in picking over the belongings of the recently deceased rather than the issues related to “should someone else be picking over the belongings of the recently deceased?”

    That said, Bob Cheeks explained to me that I should be buying my ties at the Good Will. He told me that he’s found silk ones hiding among the dross.

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  12. Thrift stores are a godsend for parents. Until your kid reaches adolescence at least, there is no such thing as “wearing out” a piece of clothing, particularly shoes. My daughter has recently been going through that middle school growth spurt where she eats like a horse and has probably shot up six inches in the last year. We’re not exactly poor but we’re not made out of money either,and trying to keep her properly dressed is not an insignificant issue.

    If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford constantly buying your kid new clothes to replace the stuff that fit perfectly six months ago, then G-d bless you and please donate the older stuff because the rest of us could really use it. You get it out of your hair, we get the opportunity to rent it for a while (we donate it back when we’re done), and some money goes to a worthwhile charity. I call that a win/win/win which is a rare and wonderful thing indeed.

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    • Road Scholar: godsend for parents

      Yeah, her first batch of clothes we bought at Old Navy. I figured it would be no cheaper at Goodwill. It turns out that was very, very wrong. Perfectly usable pants are often something like a dollar. And there is the surplus stuff too that’s great. We got brand new mouse slippers for a dollar that she insisted on wearing everywhere for a while.

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      • The only think I would be wary about buying clothes at Goodwill is the lack of size predictability. Some of the clothes have shrunk, and different manufacturers can have different sizes. On the other hand, when at Walmart, I merely had to have Lain try on one pear of pants and then I could buy several with confidence that they would be the exact same size.

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  13. Is this actually a thing? I’ve never once heard of anyone saying Good Will is for poor people.

    The only criticisms I ever hear from them come from a certain stripe of conservative/libertarians, who argue they should be shut down because of rent-seeking.

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        • I assume that you and Kazzy are related, at the very least.

          I’m not surprised that there are non-poor people who have no concept of what Goodwill or SA are, but I am surprised that there are relatively educated, worldly non-poor people with no idea. I thought that Goodwill, at least, was well-known as a place for education (e.g., GED courses), training, and employment. The Salvation Army’s mission is so much broader, and involves a great deal of charity for the poor, including some of the clothes that you donate, that I could understand at least some confusion there. I dunno about where you are, but Goodwill even advertises to a general market, not just a poor one, especially around Halloween.

          Still, were you, Kazzy, or Brandon really thinking that non-poor people shouldn’t shop at Goodwill stores?

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          • Chris: Still, were you, Kazzy, or Brandon really thinking that non-poor people shouldn’t shop at Goodwill stores?

            Yes!

            Brandon Berg: I remember thinking…that middle-class people shouldn’t shop there for the same reason we shouldn’t take food from food banks.

            I don’t remember ever seeing a Goodwill advertisement.

            This is a very funny problem we are having. You are accusing me of strawmanning out of touch rich people, and I’m having trouble convincing you that I’m an out of touch rich person.

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          • Still, were you, Kazzy, or Brandon really thinking that non-poor people shouldn’t shop at Goodwill stores?

            Yes. I was in high school, and didn’t buy my own clothes, so it wasn’t something I gave much thought to. My sense is that my parents were pretty much in the middle of the income distribution (my mother was a bank teller and my father a carpenter). I don’t know the specifics, but we certainly weren’t rich.

            Also, we lived in a rural area and couldn’t receive local tv signals.

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      • Said it, like in a blog post? Dunno. But it’s a not uncommon lawsuit — or at least it’s not an uncommon lawsuit to threaten.

        In our state’s capital, for example, there’s a company called Garten Services that provides similar types of employment as GW/SA for folks with DD, lower income, etc. I don’t know where they stand these days, but back before I retired they used to get maybe one lawsuit filed against them a year from people claiming unfair advantages given to them by the government in the forms of tax breaks, federal subsidies, preferred contract status to certain government purchasers, etc.

        But it’s actually somewhat common for those that perform services that non-profits also provide in the private sector to file such suits, or at least threaten to do so.

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            • It’s more that I think that the assumption that people who file lawsuits alleging “unfair advantages given to them by the government in the forms of tax breaks, federal subsidies, preferred contract status to certain government purchasers, etc” against organizations that are not Goodwill implies that the theoretical people who would be arguing against Goodwill would therefore be conservatives/libertarians is one that might benefit from, at least, a crazy person giving a rant in the comments of a blog somewhere.

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              • Not sure how to respond.

                As I said, these are not uncommon. And they are — to the best of my personal anecdotal experience — always filed on a matter of principle, usually by people who are not in any way affected by the non-profit business. The principle named is always played out as rent-seeking/government sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong. And in those cases where the people who bring them up as issues publicly — in Oregon, people such as Rep Kim Thatcher, talk show host Bill Post, and (other) talk show host Jeff Krebs — are all conservative/libertarian. The number of liberal people who have taken such actions is zero to my knowledge.

                Obviously, my experience is anecdotal. But public opposition to government subsidies on principle really is the domain of one end the political spectrum, unless things in Colorado are very, very different than they are in Oregon.

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                • Well, so long as we can say “it’s a certain stripe of (group)” that does this thing that I’ve got anecdotal evidence for” when it comes to other topics, I’m down.

                  I’m merely hoping for a Kantian Universalizability, here.

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                  • I find it odd that you’re pushing back here.

                    If I said my experience was that everyone I knew that had pushed for ill-thought out hate speech laws was liberal, or that everyone I had met that wanted schools to ban Huck Finn for using the n-word was as well — both true, by the way — would you be pushing back on that too?

                    Some things are just striped in arbitrary tribal colors, whether or not they make your home team look super awesome.

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                      • I think the key is the use of the term certain stripe. Or it is for me anyway. Usually when I see people get in trouble, it’s because they didn’t include that qualifier.

                        Libertarians are anti-Safetynet, liberals are anti-classic literature, and so forth

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                • I’m curious as to the details of this, because it just sounds weird to me. But searching those names in combination with “Garten Services” turns up nothing of interest, nor am I finding much searching for “Garten Services” and “lawsuit.”

                  I realize that not everything that happens gets reported on the Internet, but do you have a link to a story, or any additional details that might help me find something?

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                    • Well, probably because I don’t know the details. It just seems like it would be a very low priority. With all the 100% taxpayer-funded programs that just give straight-up handouts to non-handicapped people, why go after an organization funded mostly by user fees that productively employs the handicapped? If it were competitors suing, sure, I could see that. But if people are doing it for ideological reasons, I don’t understand why they’d choose that particular target.

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