Commentary

Civil Society to the Rescue

Those who believe that only government can solve the problems of poverty should take note of a remarkable anniversary. Gospel Rescue Ministries, one of the nation’s most successful private charitable institutions, turned 90 this past May. Since 1907—long before presidential summits on volunteerism—they have been helping the poorest Americans get off the streets, find jobs and rebuild their lives.

The D.C. branch of the organization operates from a converted crack house in Chinatown. Relying on volunteers and private contributions—not government money—the ministry operates a 150-man shelter, soup kitchen, food bank and drug treatment center. The ministry addresses its clients’ needs for more than food and shelter: it provides education, job placement assistance and spiritual advice.

Unlike government welfare programs, the ministry operates on the principle that no one should receive something for nothing. Therefore, the homeless must pay $3.00 a night or agree to perform one hour of work on the premises in exchange for lodging.

By insisting that the poor take responsibility for their lives, the ministry has been extraordinarily successful in helping its clients put their lives back together. For example, nearly two out of three of the addicts completing its drug treatment program remain drug free. But a government-run drug treatment center just three blocks away has only a 10 percent success rate, although it spends nearly 20 times as much per client.

Gospel Rescue Ministries is a tiny fraction of American charitable efforts. Americans contribute more than $125 billion annually to charity. More than 85 percent of all adult Americans make some charitable contribution each year. In addition, about half of all American adults perform volunteer work: more than 20 billion hours in 1991. Translated into dollars, the value of that volunteer work was more than $176 billion. Americans’ charitable contributions total more than $300 billion per year.

Private charities have been more successful than government welfare has at actually helping people for several reasons.


Private charity is ennobling for everyone involved, both those who give and those who receive. Government welfare ennobles no one.


First, private charities are able to give individual attention in ways that governments can’t. Government regulations must be designed to treat all similarly situated recipients alike. Most government programs provide cash or other goods and services without any attempt to differentiate between recipients. The sheer size of government programs works against individualization. As one welfare case worker lamented, “With 125 cases it’s hard to remember that they’re all human beings. Sometimes they’re just a number.”

In her excellent book, Tyranny of Kindness, Theresa Funiciello, a former welfare mother, describes the dehumanizing world of the government welfare system—a system in which regulations and bureaucracy rule all else. It is a system in which illiterate homeless people with mental illnesses are handed 17-page forms to fill out, women nine months pregnant are told to verify their pregnancy, and a woman who was raped is told she is ineligible for benefits because she can’t list the baby’s father on the required form. It is a world totally unable to adjust to the slightest deviation from the bureaucratic norm.

Second, private charity is more likely to focus on short-term emergency assistance than on long-term dependence. Private charity provides a safety net, not a way of life. Moreover, it is far easier for private charities than for government to demand that the poor change their behavior: governments are often hamstrung when they require recipients to stop using alcohol or drugs, look for a job or avoid pregnancy. Private charities are much more likely than government programs to offer individual counseling and monitoring rather than simply cut a check.

Finally, and perhaps most important, private charity requires a different attitude on the part of both recipients and donors. Recipients learn that private charity is not an entitlement but a gift carrying reciprocal obligations. Donors learn that private charity demands they become directly involved. There is no compassion in spending someone else’s money—even for a good cause. True compassion depends on personal involvement.

Thus private charity is ennobling for everyone involved, both those who give and those who receive. Government welfare ennobles no one.

Still in doubt? Consider this: if you had $10,000 available that you wanted to use to help the poor, would you give it to the government to help fund welfare, or would you donate it to a group like Gospel Rescue Ministries?

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.