Thanks to the endless media coverage of the upcoming Presidential election, there is no shortage of candidates talking about the plight of Americans facing tough times. Many even say we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disenfranchised. Perhaps, but the real question may be: What is the appropriate role of the federal government?
As New Yorkers, we don't have to read statistics or listen to others talk about hunger and poverty. Unfortunately for many of us, every day we see individuals panhandling in subways and on street corners. And yet as New Yorkers, we also understand better than most the difference between well-intentioned but flawed policy and actual proposals that will lift people out of poverty permanently.
It was, in fact, only twenty years ago that New York had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the nation's highest number of welfare recipients (per capita). Fast forward to today and New York is a true welfare success story. What's behind this remarkable turnaround?
While the ink in the history books is not yet dry, the landmark 1996 Welfare Reform Act clearly deserves credit for the turnaround. Signed by former President Bill Clinton, the act fundamentally altered the way our country deals with welfare dependence and poverty. Essentially, the government stopped rewarding people for not working, while encouraging productivity.
It also emphasized that government programs had not demonstrated much success at helping the poor gain independence from welfare - that job was being better done by many community organizations around the country. Decried at the time by critics as heartless and mean, today the Welfare Reform Act is seen to be a clear success.
Of course the reality is that poverty persists and the question remains: What to do?
Well, according to a recent study, the short answer may be -- don't look to the government. According to a joint study conducted by the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington and the World Bank, nonprofit organizations contribute at least $9.6 billion to the Washington D.C. region's economy. In short, the study describes how non-profit groups have been more successful than the government in dealing with homelessness, hunger and violence.
Across the country, it's clear that churches and local non-profits are filling the void for the government. In suburban Chicago, with its high concentration of Hispanic-Americans, the Chicago Tribune recently reported how the "Friend, I Shall Help" (FISH) food pantry is growing with volunteers and donations.
Locally, the St. Francis of Xavier Soup Kitchen in downtown Manhattan has been operating for decades helping to feed hungry New Yorkers.
As politicians continue to raise the volume of the populist rhetoric on the campaign trail, we should remind ourselves that the government is not always best suited to tackle the issues of poverty and hunger. Churches and non-profits continue to lead the way in meeting these local needs, thanks in large part to the generosity of private citizens.
And so, as in so many things, the government is not the best answer.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in New York's El Diario