“From Poverty to Self-Sufficiency”
I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts with you regarding human services funding in Pennsylvania.
In attempting to better understand who I’d be speaking to this morning, I came across CAAP’s mission on its website. It starts: “The CAAP mission is to move people from poverty to self-sufficiency….”
I couldn’t cheer you on more with this goal. The question, of course, is: How do we best do this?
My guess is that many of you would argue that the first step is getting more money from the state.
However, with state government spending nearly $17,000 per year for a family of four, increasing welfare case loads, and demands on state government from other service providers, I think you will have a tough sell on the legislature this year.
The fiscal reality today-and really for the foreseeable future-is that the current approach to poverty alleviation in Pennsylvania is simply unsustainable.
Demand is high and getting higher-while the supply of taxpayer money is running low, and getting lower.
As our state’s population continues to age and demands more government services-young people are leaving for greener pastures and warmer climates.
This trend does not bode well for maintaining our current governmental commitments.
But where there’s adversity, I also believe there’s great opportunity.
That is why I would like to encourage you-people on the frontlines serving the poor and needy in our communities everyday-to encourage you to begin thinking about how we can better fund and deliver human services in Pennsylvania.
So if you’re willing to indulge me for a moment, I’d like to offer you an alternative approach….
Not just because the current welfare system is expensive, but because I believe we can better address the poverty problem in Pennsylvania than we are today.
I believe that most people would agree that, in a free society, voluntary charity care is preferable to government welfare.
We know it both intuitively and experientially.
The benefits to society from one neighbor privately serving another are always greater than an impersonal government check or program.
The private virtues of benevolence, compassion, kindness, generosity, love, fairness, and honesty accrue immeasurable public benefits.
But conversely, there is no such thing as public virtue per se. A coerced act is never virtuous. It never builds lasting character. The reality is that government coercion simply cannot create virtue in any of us.
In fact, government can actually be destructive of private virtue and community welfare.
The more roles that government assumes from intermediary layers of society, such as family, church, and voluntary associations, the more we lose what sociologists call “social capital”-the bonds that encourage us to take care of our neighbors.
What, then, is the role of a true neighbor, when government assumes the role of “substitute” neighbor-making promises to feed our neighbors in need, clothe, house, protect, educate, vaccinate, entertain, console, and counsel.
As government becomes less of a safety net and more of a primary provider, true neighbors become more the safety net and less the primary providers of charitable care. This is an inescapable truth.
Therefore, I believe that effective and sustainable poverty relief solutions require us citizens-not government-but citizens to make true sacrifices for our needy neighbors.
While paying tax dollars may be a burden, it is certainly not a sacrifice.
For instance, paying taxes for a daycare provider for your neighbor’s children is not a sacrifice; voluntarily caring for your neighbor’s children is indeed a sacrifice.
The sacrifice is in the personal service.
The sacrifices we voluntarily make for our neighbors is what engenders both unity and commitment in our communities.
It is what increases that important and irreplaceable social capital.
Therefore, any policy that leaves neighbors in a singular role of coercively paying others to serve and sacrifice by proxy is not good public policy.
So what am I calling for?
I am calling for social welfare policy from Harrisburg that encourages all citizens to be true neighbors through voluntary charity care.
The benefits of voluntary charity care simply cannot be replicated by government.
Under this approach the role of government is limited to facilitation and persuasion.
Government is no longer the primary instrument to redistribute our wealth to provide for our poor, but it seeks to promote a culture of authentic charity care.
Your organizations are critical in advancing this culture.
In this culture, we as neighbors increasingly contribute voluntarily both time and money to helping the poor and needy in their communities.
If voluntary efforts fall short, a culture of authentic charity care you have helped create will raise public awareness of the remaining needs to engender sufficient public opinion to meet those needs.
I believe the recent voluntary response by Americans to the tsunami relief efforts is just one example of how this can work.
Of course, none of this will happen overnight. Nor will it be easy.
But, I believe, if we are truly interested in helping citizens move from poverty to self-sufficiency, it is a moral imperative that we do so.
Now I can hear the objections already.
Proponents of government poverty relief are quick to point out the weaknesses and failures of private charity efforts.
Whereas proponents of private charity see compassion, kindness, benevolence, unity, neighborly love, individual autonomy, and commitment, others see a dearth of resources, inequality, inefficiency, lack of oversight, and on and on.
Proponents of government poverty relief argue that with many changes in society, particularly the breakup of the traditional family, individuals can no longer meet the needs of the poor, and poverty relief must be a government affair.
They will argue that voluntary and private charitable organizations are simply not able to keep up with the demand.
Therefore, government must assume the responsibility of caring for the poor.
Now, I will agree that private charity has been found wanting, but, I would argue, that government welfare has not fared much better.
In spite of good intentions and tremendous compassion, poverty has not been abolished, dignity has not been restored, the delivery of poverty care is still hit and miss, huge bureaucracies have developed, efficiencies have not been achieved, and coordination of multitudes of government programs is sorely lacking.
Government welfare has created dependency on the part of recipients and-perhaps more importantly-it has taken away from hundreds of millions of Americans the opportunity to provide charity care for their neighbors.
When government assumes responsibility and coerces citizens to support welfare programs through taxation, citizens become separated from their neighbors in need.
So today they feel that their voluntary charitable assistance is no longer required.
This deprives them of one of the greatest rewards of humankind-service to others.
So while neither voluntary charity care nor government welfare are perfect, I would argue that a free society such as ours should always prefer and promote voluntary efforts rather than government coercion and provision.
Voluntary charity care brings genuine rewards to the providers of charity, as well as to the recipients, while forming stronger communities.
This vision is an ideal one, of course-radically different from our current approach.
But I believe it can become reality-with your help.
In fact, given what you heard from Washington DC yesterday, and what you’ll likely hear from Gov. Rendell tomorrow, I believe we have no other choice.
Thanks for listening, and I wish you well as you work to help our needy citizens move from poverty to self-sufficiency.