With the impending end of welfare as a federal entitlement, the states will have more freedom to design and operate their own programs. States are likely to deliver better services for less money than they can under current, rigid federal rules. In any event, it's hard to imagine how the states could do worse than Washington has when it comes to welfare.
There are differing opinions, however, on how states might best use this freedom. Should they design new programs that work through neighborhood churches and community-based groups? Should they emphasize job training and education? What about time limits for benefits and rules governing benefits for additional children?
While these matters are being debated, elected officials would do well to study some of the best existing welfare programs, whether public or private. Programs do exist that deliver benefits efficiently while treating the needy with dignity and respect. One organization that runs excellent anti-poverty programs is both famous and local to Michigan: it is Detroit's Capuchin Soup Kitchen.
The Soup Kitchen was founded in 1929 by Capuchin monks, a group with centuries-old traditions of simplicity and charitable giving. Located in a very old neighborhood on the city's east side, it serves breakfasts and lunches, with a menu not limited to soup. Inside its large and well-maintained building is a dining room that holds 14 tables, each with eight chairs. At 9:00 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, about 70 men and women were enjoying a hearty, nutritious breakfast.
The director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen since 1993 is Father Jim Leary, a man who wears a traditional brown, hooded robe, which is tied at the waist with a rope. "We serve over a million meals per year," said Father Leary in an interview with this writer. "Our annual cash budget is $4 million." In addition to paying for meals, that money also supports a program to find jobs for the unemployed and to provide them with transportation to work. "I have been impressed with the number of people who want to get jobs," he said.
The business of helping the unemployed find jobs has been a learning experience. According to Father Leary, "We might find jobs for ten people, and have ten people show up the first week, but then only two of them show up the second week. It has proven difficult to move people from dependence into permanent jobs. Patience is required. Our mission has always been to feed the poor, but we are trying to move beyond that. You have to get involved in their whole lives. It takes an enormous amount of support and guidance. "
The Capuchin Kitchen seeks no government funds, and Father Leary believes that reporting requirements and government control reduce the efficiency of any charitable organization. "Government can't seem to do things simply. We can," he said.
Behind the scenes, supporting the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and its 65 employees, is a mailing list of over 50,000 individual contributors, as well as a list of business donors which includes big and small firms alike. Counting family members, over 100,000 people are involved, many of whom contribute volunteer time as well as cash. Working together, the Capuchins and their supporters have sustained their kitchen for over 65 years in a continuing, spontaneous expression of love by a religious community for Detroit's needy.
A large, unasked question in the debate over welfare reform is, "How can we create more voluntary programs like the Capuchin Soup Kitchen?" There is no easy answer to this question because it is no easy task to build an organization with 50,000 donors; it is much easier to tax and spend. But clearly, the secret to the success of private groups like the Kitchen is that they don't just give the needy red tape and a check; they provide the personal attention, the character-building, and the spiritual anchor that make a real difference in their lives.
If there were 100 charitable organizations in Detroit, with funding and skills comparable to the Capuchin Kitchen, then government welfare programs could be safely and dramatically cut back. If the current welfare system could be replaced by voluntary efforts motivated by higher principles, we could also expect dramatic improvements in crime, drug abuse, and illegitimacy.
Can government policy be altered radically enough to bring about such a revolution? We will never know until we try.