The American public is still being cheated out of a welfare debate that will address in fundamental ways the disintegration of our neighborhoods and of our country. So far the debate has been dominated by two choruses: the Great Society chorus that keeps insisting that with a little more money (a few billion here and there) and a little more imagination (reinventing a program here and cutting a few bureaucrats there), we will solve the intransigent social problems facing us; and the limited government chorus that assumes that once government is out of the way, once taxes have been cut and the budget balanced, all will be well, not only on Main Street, but on the increasingly mean streets in our inner cities. I am singing as loudly as the next person in the second chorus, but I also know that our song is only part of the story and only half of the truth.
The other half is what the Acton Institute is doing with its Samaritan Awards Project, what the Bradley Foundation is doing, what the New Citizenship Project is doing, what we, at the Center for Effective Compassion, are doing: helping lead the transformation of America’s efforts to provide help for those in need from the government-centered, bureaucratic, impersonal regime created by the Great Society to a community-oriented, decentralized, people-focused approach grounded in the historic principles of America’s founding. And the most important part of the transformation are the thousands of extraordinary Americans who provide the flesh and blood evidence of effective compassion.
Across the political spectrum there is broad consensus that the very programs intended to help the poor have had the opposite effect, creating a “culture of poverty” in which crime, drug abuse, child neglect and violence are commonplace. The compassionate intentions of the Great Society have resulted in anything but compassionate results.
But the deadliest form of wishful thinking is to assume that the alternative to the Great Society is a cheap trimmed down welfare state, as if the elimination of federal programs coupled with tax reform were sufficient to halt the disintegration of civil society. Marvin Olasky, who is co-founder of the Center for Effective Compassion, has written brilliantly that the help needed to turn around lives is “the help that only a person can give: love, time, care and hope.” Most poverty, and certainly most dysfunctional behavior, is not a matter of economics. Breaking the cycle of poverty is breaking the cycle of human pathology. And this will take nothing less than a crusade. Shutting down the entrance ramp to welfare by ending benefits and programs that encourage and subsidize pathology will certainly help — but to pretend that it will be enough is to once again abdicate our responsibility and reduce it to a position on public policy.
The alternative is personal involvement. The national campaign we are planning to launch at the Center for Effective Compassion will aim to mobilize citizens to get involved - to give some time each month and some of their income to those in need. We will encourage people to give according to the principles of effective compassion developed by Marvin Olasky: for compassion to be effective it has to be personal, challenging and spiritual. Through public service announcements, op-eds, speeches, talk shows, the Internet, as well as through a newsletter and the development of a national database, we will spotlight charities that practice effective compassion.
If building character is at the heart of renewing American civilization, then we need to seize every opportunity to build our moral muscle by exercising it. As James Q. Wilson has argued, we become virtuous by the practice of virtue, responsible by the practice of responsibility, generous by the practice of generosity. Clearly, the modern welfare state has deprived us of a fundamental opportunity to practice virtue, responsibility, generosity and compassion by usurping these functions to itself - and then failing to fulfill them.
Those who do volunteer are all too often discouraged or treated as marginal do-gooders by a system that simply wants them out of the way so that altruism can be left to the experts. And the government is often openly hostile to privately funded programs that work without its help - especially if they are faith-based.
This past June, the State of Texas motioned to suspend the license of one of the most successful faith-based substance abuse treatment programs in the country, Teen Challenge, just because its staff lacked what the state deemed to be appropriate professional degrees.
“Why don’t they look at our success rate?” asked the Reverend James Heurich, who is fighting for the life of Teen Challenge of San Antonio. There are 130 Teen Challenge chapters around the country and studies have shown success rates of 70 to 86 percent, compared to the single-digit rates of government programs. “That’s fine”, replies John D. Cooke of the Texas Commission of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. “But if they want to call it treatment, then state law says they must be licensed. Outcomes and outputs are not an issue for us.”
Outcomes and outputs— rather than good intentions— are exactly what charitable, as well as government, projects should be about. And we need to have the American public meet, recognize, and join the remarkable people who are in the trenches helping turn lives around one at a time, and reclaiming our neighborhoods. We want to spotlight them, replicate them, and encourage millions of Americans to get involved - with these groups or with others they themselves discover or create.
Beacons of hope exist throughout the country. Bob Cote is responsible for one such beacon. He runs Step 13 in Denver. He calls many of the government rehabilitation programs “suicide on the installment plan.” These programs that have categorized addicts as “disabled”, enabling them to pull a social security check— often mailed directly to the local liquor store— in order to feed their addiction. By contrast, Bob’s program houses 100 men a night; they can stay as long as they need to - provided they follow the rules, which, in addition to going to work each day, include passing breathalyzer and urine tests. If they fail, they’re out.
The price tag for the operation— $300,000 a year— no government money. In fact, Bob has said that if he took funding, he would have to comply with various government regulations that would end up costing him $2 million a year. Who is Bob’s main competition in providing this service? The government run shelters surrounding his building that act as a magnet for many of his clients, drawing them away from his life-affirming routine and back to the world of no rules, no responsibility and no hope.
And there are many remarkable clergymen around the country, like the Reverend Freddie Garcia in Texas. Thirty years ago, he was a heroin addict. After he found God, he enrolled in the Latin American Bible Institute in California. Following his graduation he returned to San Antonio to open a combination church and live-in halfway house for addicts. He called his program Victory Outreach and it has now spread to more than 60 churches in Texas and New Mexico. Reverend Garcia’s record for getting people cleaned up (and staying that way) is nearly 60 percent. Of course, the government couldn’t let a record like that go undisturbed. So the Texas Drug and Alcohol Commission asked Reverend Garcia to stop referring to what he was doing as “drug rehabilitation” because he wasn’t conforming to their regulations. Once again results did not matter, bureaucratic compliance did.
All these places challenge people to be the best they can be. Those who run them, and the many who volunteer there, resuscitate lives by providing help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. It is the polar opposite of the attitude that governs many non-profits according to which the best way to help the needy is not to help them, but to lobby the government to help them. This is the delusion that has dominated public policy over the last 30 years and has led many charitable organizations to cease being agents of compassion and become mere pressure groups.
Advocacy of public policies that expand governmental anti-poverty efforts is assumed to be the best thing a charitable organization can do to help the poor. For those in the trenches confronting the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, homelessness, and addiction, this is a laughable assumption.
Lobbying Capitol Hill is worlds apart from the real work of healing broken lives. Those in the non-profit world need to stop walking the corridors of Congress, quit hiding behind their desks filling out grant applications in triplicate, and get out in the streets, in the neighborhoods, in the shelters, where the real work is being done.