Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

No Magic Bullet

James Skillen


September 29, 1997

Americans are coming to believe the most unexpected things. I don't mean the astonishing credulity about UFOs, reincarnation, or black helicopters from the New World Order. I'm thinking of the growing agreement that faith-based programs are the solution to urban poverty; that real love for the needy is "tough"; and that government can't solve all problems.

Certainly for many policy wonks and social scientists, but also for many other Americans, such new commonplaces constitute a radical shift, for the old orthodoxy presumed that progress is another name for an ever-expanding state and it downplayed personal and social responsibility. The surprising turnabout is much to be praised. But the new orthodoxy is also flawed. Just as the old view trusted too much in government, the new mood wrongly tends to assume that some substitute organization will save us from our social ills.

That is a real danger in the newfound enthusiasm that churches, charities, and religious nonprofit agencies can solve welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, gang violence, and neighborhood decay. Just unleash these organizations, some argue. Cut away the shackles of government rules, wean them from their unholy dependence on government money, and they will do wonders for the poor and dispossessed.

In fact, such organizations should play a central role, because they can combine moral guidance with material help, offer a social network as well as a personal touch, and witness to the importance of transformation. And a new framework is needed so that government honors and supports them, rather than harming their unique characteristics. That's why the 'Charitable Choice' provision of last year's federal welfare reform law is a pivotal innovation in forbidding government from excluding explicitly religious groups from public funds while creating strong safeguards for their religious integrity.

Yet it's a big mistake to think of "the churches" or "the nonprofit sector" as the cure for our social woes. Too often charitable and religious organizations help without discernment, not asking why the same people keep returning for emergency aid, not checking whether a family gets the same benefit from several places, too "compassionat" to give guidance or judgment.

Moreover, focusing on churches and charities as the most effective service providers can divert attention from serious underlying problems. How tragic it would be if the wonderful successes of an after-school tutoring program caused neglect of the students' inattentive parents or disregard of the need to reform the school itself. It's dangerous, too, to reduce churches to service providers, as if they had no legitimate spiritual and advocacy roles.

Nor is government useless for addressing social ills. The church-based mentoring programs that are springing up around the country are supplements to public welfare, not substitutes for it. For some nonprofits—even robustly religious ones—government money is benign, not deforming. And when it comes to crucial reforms like bolstering marriage laws or enforcing child-support obligations, it's government, not the nonprofit sector, that must act.

In truth, social and personal health won't be found in any one set of institutions. All of our institutions—and citizens—need to recover their vitality, to gain a better grasp of their separate tasks, and to find more fruitful ways to interact. Real reform requires careful and creative leadership and craftsmanship, not slogans. There is no magic solution, no miracle institution or sector. The new orthodoxy we need goes beyond trashing government and praising private charities.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”