December 5, 2001

December 5, 2001 | Commentary on

A Pothole in the Road to Welfare Reform

A recent survey of the nation's soup kitchens and food banks lends support to President Bush's plan to step up the work of religious charities helping the poor. But it also suggests there is much work left undone by the nation's Good Samaritans.

The survey was released by America's Second Harvest, a national network of agencies delivering most of the food distributed by private charities. The list includes 26,000 pantries, nearly 6,000 soup kitchens and more than 4,000 emergency shelters. The study found that more than three-fourths of these providers are run by churches, synagogues and other religious groups.

With numbers like that, it's getting harder to dismiss the potential of religious organizations to combat poverty. Indeed, assisting the poor without their help is like boxing with one hand tied behind your back. In many communities, churches are the most important source of assistance to the down-and-out.

Liberal critics of Bush's agenda claim that church-based groups either discriminate against people of different faiths or cajole them into religious programs in exchange for help. Not according to the research: Over 90 percent of the food recipients in the Second Harvest study said they were treated with respect all or most of the time. A recent University of Pennyslvania study found that the typical person helped by a church-based ministry is an at-risk child whose family doesn't attend the church. This suggests it's time for liberals to end their smear campaign against the nation's religious charities.

Nevertheless, the Second Harvest report won't be roundly applauded by the White House. Its key finding is that the number of people seeking emergency food has jumped 9 percent since 1997, reaching 23 million people this year. When conservatives championed welfare reform in 1996, liberal groups such as the Children's Defense Fund predicted it would impoverish millions of American children. Today they claim that poverty, especially child poverty, has gotten worse. At first glance, the study appears to suggest they're right.

The best data from the federal government, however, show a massive decline in the number of poor Americans. Welfare caseloads have dropped almost 50 percent, while fewer children are trapped in "deep poverty" -- that is, in families living at less than half the poverty income level. In fact, the Census Bureau reports 4.2 million fewer people living in poverty today than five years ago.

The Second Harvest study is probably correct when it says more people are going to private agencies for food -- and the reason represents a pothole in the road to welfare reform.

By insisting on work or training as a condition for government support, welfare offices have gotten tough on those taking advantage of the system. By setting time limits on assistance, they've forced the able-bodied poor to take steps to improve their situations. In this sense, the welfare system has been re-moralized.

But what of church-based charities? Many of them dole out goods but fail to ask hard questions; they don't challenge beliefs or behavior that perpetuate poverty. In short, they haven't learned from the success of welfare reform. President Bush must face an unpleasant fact: that many of the recruits in his "armies of compassion" are spiritualized clones of the discredited government model.

Here's a rule of thumb for poverty fighters: Make free food available, with no strings attached, and demand will always be high. It's a rule apparently ignored by researchers for Second Harvest. They surveyed 32,000 needy individuals, asking about ethnicity, race, voting status and education. But there were no questions about drug or alcohol abuse, the quality of family relationships, or the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births -- issues that cannot be ignored in any successful attempt to lift the poor out of poverty.

The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which serves about 90,000 homeless people a day in their national network of shelters, takes a different approach. They use a Bible-based philosophy to help people overcome addictions, confront family problems, and learn work skills as they get "a hot and a cot." Last year, more than 15,000 people left their shelter programs with jobs and a place to call home.

"Food distribution programs without accountability and guidance may keep someone alive," says spokesman Phil Rydman. "But they won't necessarily improve his life." Welfare reformers learned that lesson from years of failure. It's time many of the nation's religious charities experienced a similar conversion. 

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

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