When "Cheech," a street hustler, would stand outside my apartment building begging, I'd ask him why he was begging. He'd tell me about his gambling and family problems, and I'd repeatedly tell him, "Someone who speaks as well as you could do much more with his life," and I'd encourage him to consult New York City's Social Services agencies. I could have done more for Cheech personally, but I said to myself, "Better leave it to the specialists -- my city spends billions on social services -- they have specialists to deal with people like Cheech."
Multiply that thought by 296 million Americans, and you see how public assistance displaces private charity. And that's only the beginning of the damage.
Twice we've brought ABC's cameras to Delancey Street, a mutual aid charity in San Francisco. It's a collection of hundreds of former street people and ex-cons (18 felony convictions is the average) who live and work together and help each other out.
Delancey Street has been hugely successful. Thirteen thousand people have been through its programs. The ex-addicts now run a dozen businesses, including a restaurant and a moving company.
But Mimi Silbert, who started Delancey Street, says it almost didn't happen, because government kept getting in the way. "We have had to fight every bureaucracy that exists." Silbert doesn't employ certified teachers and drug counselors, so welfare workers tried to smother her with red tape. "If Jesus Christ walked in today and wanted to start Christianity, he wouldn't be able to do it because they say to him, 'You need two psychiatrists, you need one social worker, somebody has to sign the things . . . '"
Silbert wanted to help some of the worst-off people in America learn to be productive citizens. The government, which typically doesn't do anything more productive with those people than lock them up, release them and lock them up again, nearly stopped her with its complicated rules.
Fortunately, Silbert fought the bureaucrats and won, but many others are beaten down by the bureaucracy. Government often makes private charity so difficult, individuals stop trying.
I once thought there was too much poverty for private charity to make much of a difference. Now I realize that private charity would do much more -- if government hadn't crowded it out. In the 1920s -- the last decade before the Roosevelt administration launched its campaign to federalize nearly everything -- 30 percent of American men belonged to mutual aid societies, groups of people with similar backgrounds who banded together to help members in trouble. They were especially common among minorities.
Mutual aid societies paid for doctors, built orphanages and cooked for the poor. Neighbors knew best what neighbors needed. They were better at making judgments about who needs a handout and who needed a kick in the rear. They helped the helpless, but administered tough love to the rest. They taught self-sufficiency.
Mutual aid didn't solve every problem, so government stepped in. But government didn't solve every problem either. Instead, it caused more problems by driving private charity out. Today, there are fewer mutual-aid societies, because people say, "We already pay taxes for HUD, HHS. Let the professionals do it." Big Government tells both the poor and those who would help them, "Don't try."
Private charity develops a sense of personal responsibility for recipients, and it does something similar for donors, too. If I hadn't thought the government would take care of Cheech, I would've had to decide whether I thought he was worth my money -- money I could spend on myself and my family, or on promoting freedom, or on any number of charitable causes.
When you rely on the government to help those who need it, you don't practice benevolence yourself. You don't take responsibility for deciding whom to help. Just as public assistance discourages the poor from becoming independent by rewarding them with fixed handouts, it discourages the rest of us from being benevolent. This may be the greatest irony of the welfare state: It not only encourages the poor to stay dependent, it kills individuals' desire to help them.