- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

President Bush and his Capitol Hill supporters are pushing hard for new legislation that will provide much-needed encouragement to the private charitable sector. Whether or not they succeed, the initiative reflects a dramatic change in the terms of the welfare debate.
Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan created a culture-wide hysteria by suggesting that the welfare state had failed to achieve its promise. Five years ago, Bill Clinton announced that he would end welfare as we knew it. Now the main debate revolves around the precise mechanism by which alternative means of philanthropy can be encouraged.
This is a stunning shift in a very short period of time, one that should encourage us about the ability of our political system to make adjustments in light of evidence and good scholarship. By nearly every measure, the conventional model of welfare provision is a proven failure. It is rarely defended in public. Even its old-line partisans are careful to not claim anything close to the success that its original promoters promised.
The current debate about welfare breaks down between two groups. On one side, there are those who believe that the normative means of providing welfare should be private and religious organizations would raise money on their own to provide for social needs. In this concept, the government should stay out of the welfare business and only offer a helping hand, but not a replacement function.
On the other side, there are those who believe government should take a direct role in providing services to the needy, including oversight and funds for private and religious groups to administer. Those who once believed that charity was the solely the job of the government (a mainstream position not too many years ago) have either fallen silent or have changed their minds.
In other words, the really energetic debate today concerns not whether private forces must play a dominant role but what is the transition mechanism that will make that possible.
The terms of the debate alone are intellectually suggestive. The dominant strain of public policy in the 20th century, from the New Deal until very recently, which was also reflected in mainline religious opinion, was that federal policy was most competent to deal with social problems such as poverty and despair. But as the welfare state grew, so did the problems, which were increasingly being addressed by private and religious organizations.
Government programs became riddled with bureaucracy and regulation, promoting an inflexible approach that forgot human needs while merely shifting wealth from class to class. Pope John Paul II took note of this in 1991, when he wrote of how the welfare state drains human energy from a society. Taxpayers find the expense intolerable, the administrative bureaucracy grows ever bigger and despotic and the recipients find themselves trapped in a cycle of dependency.
Government programs concentrate mainly on income and benefit maintenance. The downside is that this creates an unintended incentive to stay on the programs. These programs are also very expensive and middle income taxpayers resent the degree to which they are involuntarily taxed to support them.
In this respect, private welfare is very 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. 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.
Attentive private charities focus on human and not just material needs. They can better gauge the needs of those they serve and assist them in finding ways out of poverty and despair, addressing both spiritual and financial barriers. And at last, this fact is being reflected in the depth of the debate now before Congress.
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 organization misses the essential point. Governments at all levels already contract with many church-affiliated organizations, like 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 that is beneficial for the poor.
Organizations that have received government funding have not always had praise for the results. It is contrary to the nature of religious charity to draw a stark line between their faith and their works. They have sometimes regretted the amount of paperwork and the lack of administrative flexibility that comes with receiving government money. And there is a danger to becoming less dependent on private donations and more dependent on legislative allocations.
The real change in the Bush administration policy is better illustrated by initiatives getting far less attention. The first permits taxpayers to deduct charitable giving 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.
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, it is private charities that prove to be the most capable of actually bringing about change in people's lives. An important limiting 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 both giving and providing. The next phase of welfare reform needs to address these issues so that we can move away from coerced, tax-paid programs toward humane services that tap into the energy and benevolence of the American people.
Regardless of the specific nature of the legislation that passes, it is only the first step in a dramatic new phase of the welfare debate. It will take just as much patience and courage to take American society to a new level of sophistication in dealing with the problems the old welfare state either created or left unaddressed.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico, a Catholic priest, is president of the Acton Institute for Religion and Liberty.

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