December 5, 2001
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
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
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
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
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.
Distributed Nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire