- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

For several years the debate over welfare reform has centered on one key question: Can social-service charities fill the gap as government welfare programs are cut?

Despite the intensity of the debate, the answer to the question is irrelevant. If charities actually succeeded in filling the gap, it would only mean that one form of welfare dependence had been replaced by another form of dependence on charity. Obviously, taking people off welfare rolls and putting them onto charity rolls would not be progress.

The most important question facing social-service charities today is whether they can significantly reduce dependence among the able-bodied. Unfortunately, many of them do not appear to be asking this question, nor do they appear to be making increased self-reliance their top priority.

For example, Volunteers of America, one of the nation's largest social-service agencies, announced at its June 1999 annual conference that "Our plan is to serve more people." Likewise in a recent interview, Christine Vladimiroff, former president of Second Harvest, America's largest network of food banks, wondered aloud, "Is there a way to dramatically increase donations to food charities?" Presidential hopefuls George W. Bush and Al Gore are similarly seeking ways to increase funding for social-service organizations, chief among them a charity tax credit. Mr. Bush has proposed $8 billion in tax credits for individuals who contribute to social-service agencies.

Too many well-intentioned persons wind up promoting dependence by operating on the "free lunch" principle. They mistakenly believe that helping means only giving. Rather than ask for something in return from those they assist a promise to look for a job, to sober up, to complete a counseling program they provide material assistance with few or no questions asked.

A recent Second Harvest report titled "Hunger 1997: The Faces & Facts," finds that nearly 40 percent of food charity recipients are unemployed and most of them are able-bodied. Yet only one food charity in five provides employment training and only one in 10 provides direct employment. And although nearly two-thirds of recipients say they would like information on how to get the most for their money at the grocery store (poor household budgeting appears to be one reason for reliance on food charities), only one food charity in five offers budget and credit counseling. A spokeswoman at the Food Bank of Delaware recently remarked that no one had stopped to count the number of people coming through the door because "we're just trying to get the food out the door." But if a charity fails to collect even the most basic information on those it serves, how can it know what effect it is having?

In a 1995 book titled "Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women," anthropologist Elliot Liebow found that the homeless shelters he studied in Washington operated largely on a handout principle. Similarly, in the early 1990s, Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Dan McMurray, a sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University, decided to see firsthand what it was like to be homeless. They spent several days disguised as homeless men, wandering through soup kitchens and shelters in various cities. Both recount that rarely were they asked to make an effort to improve themselves in return for the assistance they received. Help seemed geared largely toward allowing the homeless to live indefinitely on the streets.

Of course, not all social-service agencies operate this way. Some, perhaps even a fair number, make demands for self-improvement from those they serve. Their approach is compassionate yet demanding and can be summarized quite simply as tough love.

In "Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More from the Poor and from Ourselves," charity analyst James L. Payne offers four thoughtful questions that all social-service agencies should ponder:

• Who are our recipients, and how should our program help them?

• How do we know we are helping them?

• In what way might our program be harming recipients (or others)?

• How can we bring about more direct personal contact between helpers and helped?

Some critics contend that welfare programs should not be cut. They seem to believe that there is a fixed number of able-bodied Americans who are somehow destined to be dependent. Yet there is good reason to believe that at least some, and possibly much, dependence is the result of welfare programs and charitable assistance that operate on a handout principle.

The task ahead is not to expand the handouts but to encourage more charities to adopt a tough love approach that actually helps the needy achieve independence.

Daniel T. Oliver is a research associate at the Washington-based Capital Research Center (www.capitalresearch.org) and a freelance writer.

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