Welfare that Works

Last Christmas, Patty and I delivered Angel Tree® gifts. The family we visited had three children: an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old and a 22-year-old who had four children of her own. The younger woman's husband was in jail. One box of cereal was all they had. Surrounded by squalor, their own three-room apartment was spotless. A group of churches bought the family some food. Volunteers visited the son-in-law in jail. When he gets out, they'll find him a job. Volunteers have already found the family's father a job that increased his income by 50 percent. They also helped the family buy a good used car from a Christian dealer. So one family, formerly hungry and dispirited, is well on the road to recovery. This is more than a heart-warming anecdote. It's an example of the way we Americans used to care for the poor. And it's the model we need to rediscover if we really want to reform our wretched welfare system. Until only 30 years go, social welfare in America was largely the responsibility of Christian volunteers. The social obligations of our faith not only motivated these welfare efforts, they shaped them as well. For example, compassion meant more than just "feeling your pain" or giving money to charities. It meant doing whatever was necessary to help the down-and-out rebuild their lives. And it meant holding recipients accountable for the help they received. Work—and an end to drinking or gambling— were expected, and the recipients complied. Amazingly, some believed this arrangement demeaning. And others, eager to exploit the poor for political purposes, wanted government to take charge of welfare. So in the Great Society, laws were passed that created disincentives for private charities—and that offered incentives to the poor to turn to government, not churches, for help. To go "on the dole" became a way of life for millions of Americans. And now we have an entire underclass that is dependent on government welfare—robbed of self-respect and moral accountability. Now it's time to go "back to the future." Big Government has proven incapable of caring for the whole person of the poor American. So once again, Congress is talking about "welfare reform." Now we have a unique opportunity to rediscover the programs that work. And what does work? Marvin Olasky, in his magnificent book on the welfare mess, The Tragedy of American Compassion, reminds us. He proves, from the historical record, that voluntary public charity works. It worked for generations. Of course government still has a part to play. But government's first part must be to eliminate the incentives that drive poor people onto the welfare rolls and encourage illegitimacy. This is a "radical" proposal. But "radical" really means solving the "root" problem. "Welfare as we know it" is the root problem. And Christian charity is the real solution. This is something we need to tell our churches. We Christians just can't bash "welfare mothers." We need to get involved. We need to call our representatives in Congress and demand radical welfare reform.


Chuck Colson


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