Can Charities Make up for Welfare Reform?
Robert A. Sirico
April 22, 1995
The taxing power is neither necessary nor sufficient for the exercise of human compassion. If people have the motivation and means, voluntary charity will meet the needs of the poor more fully than can any government bureaucracy or government-funded private bureaucracy.
Champions of the welfare state say it should not be cut or eliminated until private dollars can feasibly take its place. That's misleading.
We don't want to invent a private version of the destructive and alienating welfare state. We want a system which authentically meets the needs of the poor and reflects genuine priorities of Christian compassion, not the secular state's political priorities.
The theory of today's welfare state is that people need material provision. But material provision apart from spiritual values is destructive when not tied to certain reciprocal obligations, moral and spiritual.
Neither is it plausible to say that the obligation to Christian charity is fulfilled by having the central government administer a welfare state costing $350 billion per year.
Bureaucracies must treat people as if they are the same. Like socialist planning agencies, they are incapable of responding to change, diversity and the person's deeper needs.
The very existence of the welfare state - especially in its gargantuan present form - deters giving, hardens attitudes toward the poor and makes the job of private charities more difficult. The welfare state sends the message that government will take care of it.
Would that it were so. In many public programs, only 20% of the budget goes to the clients, fraud is endemic and those who genuinely need help end up as files buried in locked cabinets. We must root out this approach from American life.
If government took less of a role and allowed people to keep their charitable dollars, the Christian obligation to help others would be more readily apparent. It would also be easier to carry out.
In the post-welfare age, private charity must take on a greater role, but one very different from that which the welfare state traditionally has played. There need not be a dollar-for-dollar replacement of existing expenses: Private charity is much more efficient.
Programs should be funded and operated at a level of society closer to those in need. If private donors supervise programs, there will be less toleration for those wanting a free ride; more love will be shown toward the genuinely needy.
Real charity must reflect the diversity of the needy and the varied spiritual callings of donors and workers. Those who say it can't be done remind me of the old guard in Soviet socialism's last days. They adhered to a secular religion despite all evidence that socialism had been human history's worst political failing.
The welfare state has failed, to a lesser extent than socialism, but just as definitively. In 1991, Pope John Paul II wrote “Centesimus Annus,” a beautiful, subtle encyclical. In it he addressed problems with the welfare state.
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility,” he says, “the social assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
Adopting an uncritical view of the welfare state is a reactionary, not progressive, application of faith to society.
The American people's charitable impulses are a firmer foundation for compassion than the federal bureaucracy's incompetence and expense.
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