It’s the time of year when a trip to the store often means an encounter with a stocking-capped individual ringing a bell in the steady rhythm that’s become a part of December shopping for generations.

But the Salvation Army produces much more than quaint imagery. Gathering voluntary donations in its shiny red kettles, the Salvation Army raised $102,394,000 last year alone. Altogether, the charity spent $2.5 billion serving people in 2003, according to its latest financial report. An impressive 84 cents out of every dollar went toward program services.

Founded 140 years ago, the Salvation Army has been fighting poverty far more efficiently and effectively than government has. How did this private organization succeed, and what lessons can Michigan learn from this story?

The Salvation Army was born in England, and in the 1860s, when the organization began, London was not a hospitable place for the poor. England had a national welfare system that provided workhouses and infirmaries for the impoverished, paid for by a property tax. Most often, the workhouses and infirmaries were combined in the interest of saving money, forcing the destitute, insane, diseased and aged all into one facility. The conditions of these poorhouses were purposefully made worse than factory conditions, inflicting unnecessary hardship on the old, sick and infirm. Poverty in England was a stigma, and all able-bodied people tried desperately to avoid going to a poorhouse.

These were the conditions that Englishman William Booth found when he came to London as an evangelist. As he preached to the poorer regions of the city, he realized that it was hopeless to minister to people’s souls without also ministering to their body. In 1891, Booth published the book "In Darkest England and the Way Out," which outlined his plan for helping the needy. He realized that the poor needed more than the government was giving them. Instead of addressing only immediate needs, Booth established a system to help the poor achieve independence.

Booth’s ideas formed the basis for the work of his private charity, the Salvation Army. Established in 1865 as the East London Christian Mission, this charity ministered alongside the poor. Many of the volunteers came from the slums themselves. With the aim of lifting people out of poverty, rather than providing temporary assistance, Booth’s programs consisted of a labor bureau to help people find work, a farm where men could receive training, an emigration service to help men find jobs overseas, a missing persons bureau, hostels for the homeless and a bank that would make small loans to workers to buy tools or establish a trade.

From the beginning, the Salvation Army was extremely successful. By 1900, it had served 27 million meals, lodged 11 million homeless people, traced 18,000 missing persons and found jobs for 9,000 unemployed people. The charity quickly expanded beyond London, establishing operations in the United States in 1880 and in Michigan in 1883, where it became one of the most active and effective missions in Detroit. In 1888, the first Midwestern rescue home for unwed mothers was opened in Grand Rapids, which also became home to the first officially recognized Salvation Army brass band in the United States.

Today, the Salvation Army is one of the largest and most successful charities in the world. In Michigan, it operates more than 180 facilities, which provide 3.5 million meals and 600,000 nights of shelter for the homeless every year. The Salvation Army in Michigan also provides utility assistance, disaster relief, athletic and academic programs, and foster care for children who are abused, runaways or wards of the state. It operates in more than 100 countries.

The Salvation Army is a classic example of the power of the private sector. Unlike government, the Salvation Army raises money through donations, not coercion. Its efforts are effective because its workers and volunteers are able to adjust services to meet an individual’s needs and start him or her on the road to financial independence. Government efforts to eradicate poverty, as the last several decades have demonstrated, often foster generations of dependency.

By allowing private charities like the Salvation Army to replace government welfare, Michigan could have fewer poor and dependent residents, while saving millions of tax dollars.

#####

Monica J. Rubingh of Ellsworth, Mich., is a student at Patrick Henry College in Virginia and was a 2005 summer intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.