October 2, 2009 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

Where Government Fails, Room for Private Charities to Thrive

According to a recently released federal government report, the U.S. poverty rate is at its highest level since 1987. Some 13.2 percent of Americans -- 39.8 million -- live in poverty. A stark figure, to be sure, but it particularly hits home because, according to the report, Hispanics were among the groups that suffered most in the last year.

These disheartening figures will prompt many to instinctively look to the government for an answer. Unfortunately, that approach has failed.

So we're left asking: If not the government, then whom?

To properly answer the question, look to our country's history. For over a century, our government has poured trillions of dollars into programs to combat poverty. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson started a "War on Poverty," a massive national campaign to set up federal programs to, supposedly, help the least fortunate. A recent paper by one of my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation shows our country has spent $15.9 trillion on poverty-related initiatives since 1965.

Yet recent poverty numbers indicate it's been misspent. Worse, generous government programs have actually created perverse incentives for needy individuals to remain poor. Rather than truly lifting people out of poverty, many social welfare programs have made the poor permanently dependent on government.

It's time to find better ways to help the poor. We live in one of the most generous and philanthropic countries on earth. The United States celebrates generosity and gift giving.

Such generosity isn't limited to financial contributions. Americans volunteer hundreds of hours in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food drives. Some even volunteer their services, such as legal or financial counsel.

In addition to the thousands of various organizations and non-profits trying to meet these needs, churches, synagogues and other religious congregations are also dedicated to helping the least fortunate. As my colleague Ryan Messmore wrote in a compelling research paper, "traditional religious congregations in American have served as important social institutions providing for those that are in need."

Then there are people like Jorge Munoz from Queens, N.Y. He's known as the "Angel of Queens" and has been passing out free meals from his van to the city's hungry. According to a recent "El Diario La Prensa" story profiling this Good Samaritan, his generosity has inspired others to give, including a program by the area's restaurants to donate leftover food.

Where government fails, private charities have thrived, filling an important void. The private sector does a much better job than the government does in truly meeting the needs of the poor.

Poverty, hunger and homelessness are inescapable realities in any society. We shouldn't turn a blind eye to the despair that surrounds us. But rather than instinctively looking to the federal government for help, we should look to the private sector, religious institutions and the generosity of individuals first.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry

First Appeared in The Americano