September 11, 1997 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending , Religion and Civil Society

ED091197a: Seducing The Samaritan

With the decline of the welfare state, liberals and conservatives are trying to enlist private charities to help cure social ills seemingly immune to government antidotes. Better late than never. But plans to hike state and federal funding for these groups ignore some hard lessons about what happens when private charities accept government money.

Since the 1960s, numerous charities have become so beholden to government funding that they would founder without it. But with government support comes government oversight. After examining social-service groups in Massachusetts, I discovered several ways in which government is actually remaking providers in its own bureaucratic image:

  • Government funding causes organizational "mission creep." This was the phrase applied to the objectives of U.S. marines in Somalia, once their mission expanded from delivering food to chasing down local warlords. For private agencies on the public dole, it means bending their program goals to secure state and federal contracts. "It becomes almost like heroin," says Ed Gotgart, president of the Massachusetts Association of Nonprofit Schools and Colleges. "You build your program around this assumption that you can't survive without government money."

Government funders often exploit this assumption. Kristin McCormack, formerly of Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses, recalls a summer camp contract with the Department of Social Services (DSS). After years of struggling to help the DSS kids, McCormack told a state official her agency wanted to terminate the contract -- that it simply didn't fit their mission or resources. The official bluntly reminded McCormack of the $2 million in day-care contracts her agency had with the state. She renewed the contract.

  • Government focuses on delivering services, not results. Bureaucrats excel at quantifying care: the number of clients counseled, beds provided, days spent in drug detoxification. But government contracts tend to ignore actual outcomes in people's lives. "Nobody gives a darn if the kid got better," says Joyce Strom of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "All the auditors look at in my budgets is to see if I bought as many pencils and spent as much on gas as I said I did."

The result is a system that too often dispenses assistance with no strings attached. Boston's Pine Street Inn, for example, provides food and housing to nearly a thousand men, women and children each day. The shelter, largely dependent on grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, places no work or education requirements on its residents. Even the no-drinking rule is qualified: some residents walk a few yards from the shelter to a "wet park" -- a place where they can drink alcohol all day long -- and return in the evening, no questions asked.

Beth Kidd, a 25-year veteran in neighborhood nursing in Boston's South End, believes that's the wrong way to offer help. "People who are substance abusers, who have been out on the street for years -- they've learned how to survive," she says. "What they've learned from the system is that they can make the social worker jump." What they need, she insists, is moral and spiritual challenge, not milquetoast charity.

  • Government tends to secularize religious agencies. Once religious charities accept government money, they no longer can limit their hiring to those who share their faith and vision. They must obey the anti-discrimination laws, including those regarding sexual orientation. But if the faith of staff workers doesn't define a religious institution, what does?

The problem goes deeper. The Salvation Army has long been known for its Bible-based approach to rehabilitation. But under the Army's state-funded programs, if clients hear a sermon on sobriety, it must be after hours and never from a state-paid employee. "Not as part of the job description would they do anything religious," says Jeff Green, social service coordinator for the Army's Bay Area Centers. "That's the minister's role."

It's a Catch-22: To win contract money, religious agencies must separate their government-funded acts of charity from explicit expressions of faith -- yet, the latter is what makes them more effective than their secular counterparts in healing human ills.

Until we break government's monopoly over the compassion business, it will continue to seduce and subvert charitable groups. "I think we're going to lose the war, because the state controls all the money," says Patrick Villani, director of St. Ann's Home in Metheun. "And now they can develop exactly the kind of providers they want."

Warnings like that are coming from some of the most politically honed providers in one of the nation's most progressive states. Let's hope they won't be lost on those determined to offer effective help to the nation's neediest.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Note: This essay by Joe Loconte is adapted from his book, "Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services" (Boston: Pioneer Institute).