The White House has proposed a dramatic shift in the manner in which our nation cares for its poor and needy. Instead of a focus on federal bureaucracies, wealth redistribution and central p1anning, the Bush administration is highlighting the essential role of private charity, including that provided by faith-based institutions. This represents an attempt to shift away from failed administrative, approaches and toward humane initiatives undertaken by those who actually know and love those who need help.
The press spin, however, has presented something entirely different. Bush's meeting with faith-based charity leaders at the White House was described as nothing more than a lobbying effort. The leaders attending were said to be looking not just for a hand, but also for a handout in the form of federal grants. Hence, the debate quickly (and inevitably) turned to the issue of separation of church and state, People began to ask whether it is right for the government to contract with religious organizations for welfare services.
As a consequence, the debate is already off track. I can't speak for all those involved in the Bush initiative. But from my perspective, the idea of giving government funds to faith-based organizations misses the essential point.
For starters, governments at all levels already contract with many church-affiliated organizations, such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities. These organizations go to great lengths to separate the provision of their services from their religious mission and not always in a manner beneficial for the poor. If such cooperation is to be expanded, it may be a good or bad thing, but it is not a dramatic change in policy focus,
The real change in the Bush administration policy is better illustrated by two initiatives getting far less attention. The first permits taxpayers to deduct charitable gifts whether or not they itemize their deductions. This permits a far greater range of taxpayers to use their money in a charitable way without added fuss and, without being penalized. Because more than two-thirds of taxpayers do not itemize, this change could have a huge impact.
The second initiative instructs federal agencies to review ways in which regulations have a negative impact on the delivery of private charitable services. That information will be collected and the Bush administration will call for specific exemptions that allow people to be served without jumping through the thousands of bureaucratic hoops that are currently in place.
One thinks of the cumbersome food and drug regulations, disabilities laws, labor laws, housing codes and many other restrictions, Strict enforcement of these laws creates unneeded headaches and has sometimes forced charities to close their doors. A thorough review of these regulations is in order.
But the real change in the Bush initiative is philosophical. It represents a move from ineffective and centralized government programs to effective and decentralized private ones.
Government programs concentrate mainly on income and benefit maintenance. The downside is that this promotes dependency and creates an unintended incentive to stay on the programs. These programs are also expensive, and middle-income taxpayers resent the degree to which they are involuntarily taxed to support them,
Now that suites have imposed strict time limits on benefits, the poor find that they are being cut off or shoved into job training programs while underlying problems that bring about poverty, including family dissolution and hopelessness, are left unaddressed.
In this respect, private welfare is different. Providers are focused on providing genuine help that considers the unique situation of the individual or family in need. Underlying causes are addressed. Dependency is not promoted, but rather discouraged. Religious charities in particular deal with the whole needs of people, not just material ones. In faith-based institutions, the workers themselves are willing to go to great lengths and make extra sacrifices because they are motivated by high ideals,
For too long, the essential social task of helping those in need has been seen as the exclusive province of government. Yet in the real world, private charities prove most capable of actually bringing about change in people's lives. An important limit at this point is funding, which is why many more tax law changes are needed.
The welfare state tends to create an “I gave at the office” attitude among many, while among those who do want to help, there are too many barriers today to giving and providing.
The next phase of welfare reform needs to address these issues so we can move away from coerced, tax-paid programs toward humane services that tap into the energy and benevolence of the American people.