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Jewish World Review April 18, 2005 / 9Nissan 5765

John H. Fund

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Compassion, not compulsion | GROVE CITY, Pa.—You wouldn't think the natural place to hold a conference on inner-city poverty would be the campus of Grove City College, a tidy liberal-arts school north of Pittsburgh with a largely white student body. But the school takes seriously the Christian values it seeks to instill in students, and this month it brought to campus a group of frontline soldiers in the faith-based army that President Bush believes can do a better job of fighting poverty and hopelessness than bureaucracies can.

Mr. Bush isn't alone in that view. Management expert Peter Drucker has said that private charities, both faith-based and secular, "spend far less for results than governments spend for failure." Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, has tried to turn that belief into law. He is again trying to win passage of a Charitable Giving Act that would, among other things, allow taxpayers to deduct charitable contributions even if they don't itemize and provide incentives for farmers and restaurants to donate excess food. Both the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill last year, but the process stalled before they could be reconciled.

The bill is part of a broader conservative antipoverty agenda that includes reauthorizing and improving the spectacularly successful 1996 welfare reform bill. That landmark law has helped lower the number of families on welfare to 2.2 million from five million in 1996. Illegitimacy rates, which were skyrocketing before its passage, have leveled off and even declined. Even with those achievements, the law was technically allowed to expire in late 2002 and liberal opponents have blocked its permanent renewal. Instead, Congress has repeatedly passed temporary extensions.

Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the entitlement that the 1996 law reformed and renamed (it's now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), was only a small part of the federal government's "poverty Pentagon." The 1996 reforms notwithstanding, the rest of federal welfare spending is bigger than ever and still operating in ways that discourage work and foster social ills.

Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, reports that direct federal welfare payments now total only $10 billion a year. But they are dwarfed by spending on such items as food stamps, which go to 23 million Americans at a cost of $27 billion a year.

Medicaid is the major source of health care for 42 million people at a cost of $300 billion a year. Housing subsidies go to 4.5 million families. The misnamed Earned Income Tax Credit is actually a government subsidy of up to $4,300 a year for low-income families. Total annual cost: more than $37 billion. Government audits have found that nearly one-third of recipients don't actually qualify for the checks they get.

All told, there are more than 80 federal benefit programs. Like the pre-1996 AFDC program, nearly all have no limits on how long someone can remain on them. All of these programs do good, especially in keeping people fed and housed. But the impersonal government dole does nothing to cure the poverty of the soul that keeps so many mired in self-destructive behavior.

As welfare expert Marvin Olasky has observed, "the major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it's extravagant with money, but that it's stingy with the help that only a person can give: love, time, care and hope." In his book "The Tragedy of American Compassion," Mr. Olasky tells the fascinating story of America's early social workers. In battling poverty a century ago, they held that compassion required both warm hearts and hard heads. They believed antipoverty programs worked only when local communities were actively involved, and that such programs were truly compassionate only when they stressed personal responsibility.

Most social workers back then opposed government welfare, fearing correctly that its "feed and forget" programs would crowd out and diminish private activity—what we recognize today is the "I gave at the office" syndrome often fueled by people's impatience with programs that fail to uplift people. Indeed, the proportion of philanthropic giving devoted to social welfare has declined to less than 10% today from 15% in 1960. More private money goes to symphonies than to homeless shelters.

Early social welfare programs were remarkably successful in America. In a much poorer country they helped maintain stable communities where the vast majority of adults acted responsibly and gradually bettered themselves. The pioneer social workers had no qualms about making moral demands of those they helped. "They saw moral renewal and intact families as the key to a good life, not as lifestyle options," Bob Woodson, head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, told the Grove City conference.

When I worked as a counselor for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act during college, I saw that government programs do a good job of cutting checks, but their value-free form made it impossible to help the poor change. In contrast, Mr. Woodson promotes alternative private efforts that rely on leaders who actually live in distressed communities. His group trains and supports them as well as provides seed money. He calls his activists "modern-day Josephs," referring to the Biblical figure who found ways to care for people after seven years of bountiful harvests were followed by seven years of famine.

Several of his local associates spoke at the Grove City conference. Omar Jahwar established a partnership with the Dallas public schools to form a Violence Free Zone program that hires felons who once robbed and bullied people in their communities and gives them the opportunity to change young lives. The recruits mentor at-risk teens and help negotiate truces between gangs in crime-prone neighborhoods. Their success has prompted the U.S. Justice Department to embrace Mr. Jahwar's program as a model.

Gary Wyatt founded the He Brought Us Out ministry in Akron, Ohio, which is devoted to convincing people they can turn their lives around. He speaks from real-life experience, having been a drug dealer and abuser in the 1990s. A visit to a church and searing conversations with his future wife became transformative experiences.

Mr. Woodson says that existing government antipoverty efforts often fail because "their programs are designed by professionals in distant bureaucracies and then parachuted into low-income communities." He contrasts them with local private groups who can recruit "character coaches" and "moral mentors" to instill values and motivate people to do better by themselves. That alone can be enough to turn people onto a successful path. As Richard Barclay, the owner of a telephone equipment company in Riverside, Calif., once said: "Just give me an unskilled but dependable person of character, and I'll take care of the rest. I can train a person to disassemble a phone, I can't train her to not get a bad attitude. I can train a worker to properly handle a PC board, I can't train him to show up to work sober and respect authority."

It's been 20 years since Charles Murray exposed the failures of the welfare state in his book "Losing Ground," and nearly a decade since welfare reform passed. It's now time to take the next step and rethink the wisdom of having so much of the responsibility for aiding the poor fall to government bureaucracies rather than private groups. In our daily lives and choices most of us already have done some of that rethinking. Ask yourself: If you had a financial windfall and decided to tithe a portion of it in a way that would best help the less fortunate, would you even think about giving a check or donating time to the government?

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund