Charity is not the government's job

Posted: Feb 08, 2001 12:00 AM
Why now? Opponents began yelling immediately after President George W. Bush announced his plan to encourage federal funding of so-called faith-based programs. Bush said, "I've seen how effective and committed these groups are at saving and changing lives. ... Government, of course, cannot fund -- and will not fund -- religious activities. But when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them." Foul, says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lynn stated, "This is one more example of a president who seems to think he's the pastor of the country. George Bush believes religious conversion is the answer to every problem. He has every right to believe that, but he doesn't have the right to use taxpayer money to convert others." Lynn is correct. But this train left the station some time ago. Taxpayers already provide day-care vouchers redeemable at religious-based preschools. Similarly, Pell Grants and national student loan programs provide tuition assistance for religious as well as secular schools. Local communities provide busing at taxpayers' expense to religious schools, while also providing taxpayer-funded textbooks. President Bush properly questions the effectiveness of welfare as we know it. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 sparked a dramatic decline in welfare recipients, but government-provided-no-questions-asked welfare remains a crutch. Charles Colson, Watergate offender, and now chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, says, "What the experts have shown is that crime is caused by the lack of moral training during the morally formative years. There has to be a moral solution, a transformation of the individual." Colson founded a Christian prison program called the "InnerChange Freedom Initiative." He claims that the prisoners who go through the program show a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent, compared to a national average of between 40 percent and 60 percent. Stuff like this scares people. But those opposing federal funding of faith-based charities see no problem with non-faith-based government welfare. "It is inappropriate for aid to the poor to be given merely out of compassion," says University of Illinois Associate Professor of Philosophy Sam Fleischacker. "The poor deserve not to be poor. The basic means necessary to secure equality of opportunity -- universal health care, high quality education and the like -- is something the poor are owed by justice rather than charity." "Owed by justice"? Translation: "Owed by government." But what about the poor, the handicapped, the infirm? How could they survive without government-provided welfare, if not through government-funded, faith-based programs? In "The End of Welfare," the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner points out that even during the Great Depression, self-help groups stepped up. "Private charitable groups," he said, "were indeed beginning to rally. Americans were contributing more to charity than ever before. In New York City, for example, a group of philanthropists contributed $8.5 million to put the unemployed to work. In 1932, despite worsening economic conditions, the Community Chest set a record for contributions." In "The Tragedy of American Compassion," Marvin Olasky writes about Benjamin Franklin's 1766 criticism of a British welfare act. Franklin said, "There is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken and insolent. The day you passed that act you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health for support in age and sickness ... " Economist and author Thomas Sowell estimates that nearly 70 cents for every dollar intended for a needy beneficiary gets burned up in bureaucratic transfer costs. Charity properly falls to the citizen, not the government. James Madison, Founding Father and principal author of the Constitution, said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents ... " Economist and author Walter Williams points out that earlier presidents understood that governmental charity lacked a Constitutional basis. When Congress, in 1887, sought to spend money for a charitable purpose, President Grover Cleveland said, "I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan to indulge in benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds. ... I find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution." Will Americans "step up to the plate"? Of course they will. The amount of "humanitarian money" our country provides for other countries amply demonstrates our generosity. Do we care more about foreigners than down-on-their-luck Americans? Remember the Chicago fire of 1871? Private donations from all over the country rebuilt the city with virtually no government assistance. During his campaign, the conservative Bush repeatedly talked of how he "trusted the people." And liberal former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously uttered, "All politics is local." Well, isn't charity? So, trust us, Mr. President.
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