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Local Communities Are Charity's Resource of First Resort

R&L: What are your views on the nature of the welfare state and the need for its reform?

Santorum: What we have had with our public assistance programs over the past thirty or more years is a system that was very bureaucratic, very clinical. It did not require much, if any, responsibility—in fact, I would argue that it rewarded irresponsibility. And the system did not provide much incentive or opportunity for recipients to escape public assistance programs. In most cases the only contact recipients had with the kind of “help” we were providing was to receive a check—usually from some faceless government worker hiding behind bulletproof glass.

Seeing what these federally run programs have created was evidence enough for me to want to change it. We see teenage girls having children they cannot raise, at alarmingly increasing rates. We see a whole generation of Americans—actually a second generation of Americans—unable to sustain themselves and dependent on the welfare state for very long periods of time. We see crime and drug use pervasive among the very populations we are supposed to be helping. And we see another America, a working and taxpaying America, washing their hands of any concern for these people, frustrated that the money they send to Washington is being wasted. Our welfare system is fracturing what we once considered to be bedrock beliefs in what America is all about. The sense of freedom and opportunity to succeed was simply never instilled in a growing group of Americans. That is why I knew that we had to take this problem on. And we still have a lot more to do.

R&L: Do you think that government and its bureaucratic mentality is a significant part of the problem of the welfare state? And if so, then isn’t there a limit to what it can do to reform welfare?

Santorum: Sure, government has been a big part of the problem, but that does not mean it cannot also be part of the solution. There are, however, important and significant limits to what government can do. Government public assistance programs should be the avenue of last resort for people in need—not their primary option. The first place individuals should look to for help is their families, churches, neighborhood groups, and other local solutions because government can never, ever, provide the kind of help that is most needed. But government can, and should, be the solution of last resort, when help is hard or impossible to find, when there are no other solutions. Encouraging individuals to see the real value in helping themselves first and taking help from people who really care about them is what we should be doing. Government may do a good job of handing out checks or food stamps, but it cannot show the value of faith, of the need for values and self-sufficiency. In many cases government actually discourages these crucial things.

R&L: What is the next step in welfare reform?

Santorum: With the enactment of the new welfare reform law, our challenge lies in providing local communities with the necessary tools to foster the dynamic transition envisioned under the new program. This transition is also dependent upon our capturing the spirit of community involvement, participation, caring, and compassion that will help transcend our old system of welfare. As we seek a greater role by our communities under the new program, we will begin to reshape how our welfare system is viewed. We also will begin to instill greater hope and create opportunities for individuals, touching them more deeply and lifting them higher than any federal program or handout ever could.

R&L: It seems that many people are in favor of eliminating entitlements in general while wanting to retain those government programs that benefit them personally. How do we overcome this powerful disincentive to reform?

Santorum: The key is to clearly show to the people we are supposed to be helping the real deficiencies in government-run public assistance programs. For some people, this is going to be a huge leap of faith, but using the real-life results of many government programs—the loss of dignity, the worsening of social concerns—maybe we can shorten the length of that leap.

R&L: Many say that the drive to reform welfare is more out of a concern for saving money than helping people. How do you respond to this criticism?

Santorum: I know why people would make that charge—but it simply is not true. I wrote the original welfare reform bill and was involved in more meetings, hearings, and floor debate than probably any other member of the House or Senate on this issue over the past four years, and saving money was never a primary factor in this bill. The destruction the previous system caused was all the incentive anyone would ever need in order to want to change it. Speaking for myself, budgetary savings was the last thing on my mind; I was concerned with trying to reform a program that clearly had run amok.

R&L: What are the types of nongovernmental responses to the problems of the welfare state that need to occur in order for welfare reform to be successful?

Santorum: The bulk of public assistance should come primarily from the local level: community efforts, nonprofit organizations, volunteer groups, charities, and churches. This really gets back to the things that we know work. What works in dealing with the problems of poverty is people who belong to the community and care about those they are serving, not someone hired from the state capital to monitor a caseload, but someone who lives next door, who goes to the same church as the person going through the difficult time in his life. The role of government should be to strengthen these organizations. I am a member of the Renewal Alliance—a group of congressmen and senators—and we are proposing various pieces of legislation to accomplish this.

The Volunteer Protection Act, which I introduced with Senator Coverdell, and my Charity Empowerment package of legislation both seek to reduce the burdens of excessive liability that prevent individuals and businesses from doing the most they can do to help local charities. Also, charity tax credit legislation sponsored by Senator Coats and me will help to free up significant resources to these charities, These are nuts-and-bolts efforts we are taking to give local organizations and churches added strength to combat the problems of the poor. Finally—and this is probably the most important thing—we can lead by example, by going out into the communities and working with individuals, churches, and other organizations at the local level to show what can really be accomplished when people care enough to feed not just stomachs, but souls.

R&L: What role can faith-based charities play in all this?

Santorum: Faith-based charities have a vital role to play in lifting people out of poverty, but more important, they have a vital role in lifting people out of their poverty of spirit. I have had the opportunity to visit and work with faith-based charities all across my state and they are truly performing miracles. The success rate of these charities is unparalleled by anything the state has ever run. What we are doing with the Renewal Alliance is highlighting faith-based groups and giving them what support we can to help them accomplish their missions. Faith is the most powerful weapon we have to combat the needs of Americans.

R&L: In a recent speech to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, you expressed concern about Catholic Charities usa’s dependency on government funding. That proved to be a somewhat controversial position; could you comment on the reaction your speech received?

Santorum: In that speech, I expressed my concerns about Catholic Charities usa and its loss of a distinctively Catholic identity and mission. From some quarters, the response to my speech was angry, but I hope it will lead to reflection on this issue.

I also hope that this can be an opportunity for a discussion about how to best help the poor and about the role of the nonprofit community in such an effort. We need to have an intellectually honest debate about the unique role that religious charities can play in communities and about how to maximize their special identity within a secular society.

My critique of Catholic Charities started with the facts. Depending on who is talking, it receives sixty-two to sixty-five percent of its budget from government funds. I argued that this reliance on public funds tends to limit their ability to offer the fullness of the Catholic vision to those who seek their help.

From a Catholic point of view, I understand our obligation to the poor to be nonnegotiable. It is my support of this commitment that prompted my concern about government funding to Catholic Charities. I believe that our charities should begin at the humblest level; our charitable duty should be to those closest to us, which allows us to achieve a solidarity with the poor. This suffering with the poor is a critical and effective component of charity. And it is this ennobling part of charity that can be tragically lost when nonprofit activity becomes too sterilized by bureaucracy.

R&L: Do you think that Americans are properly equipped to respond to the human need around them after decades of expecting the state to take care of it? In other words, have the American people lost the habit of charity, and if so, what must we do to restore it?

Santorum: Washington does not have a monopoly on caring. I believe that as caring individuals concerned for the well-being of all Americans, we will end the cycle of dependency caused by the growth of the welfare state. Although our faith in each other may have taken a beating over the years, I still believe that there is a well of compassion that maybe has been dormant for a while, but can be tapped into again. I am very optimistic about what we can accomplish because I meet so many people from all walks of life who are making things happen today. And I also meet so many people who want to help and only need to be pointed in the right direction.

R&L: Finally, do you think our current efforts at welfare reform will be successful?

Santorum: Yes, I think it will. The welfare reform legislation we passed fundamentally redirects the way the federal government provides assistance to children and families in poverty. I was honored to serve on the House-Senate conference committee for the welfare reform bill, and as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to have worked with the child nutrition and food stamps programs. The new welfare reform law takes decisive steps in helping those living in cycles of dependency to find the road to a better life. The bill requires work, strengthens families, discourages illegitimacy, demands accountability from parents, and stresses personal responsibility.

The bottom line is that welfare can no longer be a maintenance system where the federal government becomes the caretaker of the poor for years on end, but rather a dynamic personal transition program that prepares individuals who are not working, or not prepared to work, so that they can and will. The new system calls for decentralization and an end to the welfare bureaucracy by empowering local communities and state governors to better respond to specific problems that affect their communities. Is there more to do? Sure. And we are going to continue to monitor how this system works, but there is no question that we are taking public assistance in the right direction.