Welfare Warriors: Private Efforts Make the Difference

Employees of Henry and Ellen Rykes often get special one-on-one mentoring. Their bakery has been hiring some of Michigan’s neediest citizens since 1968.

Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, has pointed out that the original definition of "compassion" as noted in The Oxford English Dictionary is "suffering together with another, participation in suffering." The word "compassion," is a Latin construction taken from "com," which means with and "pati," which means passion. Together they mean "suffer with." Frequently, government welfare programs are spoken of as being "compassionate," but the sad truth is that government, however well-intentioned, has neither the physical resources nor the information to be truly compassionate with millions of adults with varying needs. Only private citizens can truly "suffer with" one another in a way that will effect positive—and permanent—change in the lives of those whom they help.

Michigan has a long history of such private citizens seeking creative solutions to welfare problems, all without guidance from government. The rise of the welfare state—prescribed and funded at all levels of government—has been crowding out these Good Samaritans for years. The results have been a tragic violation of a lesson from Economics 101; namely, that one gets more of what one subsidizes. If the government subsidizes wheat, it gets more wheat. If government subsidizes poverty, it gets more poverty.

But despite government’s dominance of the poverty business, some Michigan entrepreneurs have quietly been helping people who want to get off welfare.

On their own, people like Henry and Ellen Rykes of Rykes Bakery in Muskegon and Larry Wiersma, owner of Wiersma Foods in Holland, are able to move people off welfare and into the workforce. They choose to engage in true—not government-forced—compassion by rolling up their sleeves and giving needy people the type of opportunity, guidance, and care that is impossible to deliver with a check from a distant bureaucracy.

Henry and Ellen Rykes, for example, have hired and mentored the needy one person at a time since 1968. Their bakery employs 35 individuals and is the largest nonchain bakery in Michigan. If someone wants to work, the Rykeses will train that person and give him a job. After six months, new workers receive medical, dental, and life insurance benefits. If they want a raise in pay instead of benefits, the Rykeses will do that, too.

Hard work among Henry and Ellen’s staff always comes with positive reinforcement of one type or another. Thirty poor, learning-disabled, or otherwise challenged people have been taught skills suited to their individual abilities. This flexibility is the type of personalized help that government simply cannot provide.

Sometimes things do not work out. For example, in September 1994 the Rykeses hired a learning-disabled woman to work part-time. Unfortunately, she made little effort to learn and improve on the job so the Rykeses chose not to expand her work schedule, despite her desire for more hours and greater pay.

Critics may complain that it would be unfair not to give this woman more work if she wants it. However, the money that would be spent expanding the work schedule of the unappreciative can instead be directed toward those who are willing to improve the quality of their work.

"We have to teach [our employees] to become dependable and responsible. That takes time, and when they don’t stay, we have to train someone else," said Mrs. Rykes. "But [Henry and I] both grew up during the Depression, and if people who know how to work don’t teach those who do not, who will?"

Another example of private compassion in action is Larry Wiersma.

In 1991, when unemployment was high in Holland, Wiersma began holding an informal class for three families he knew who needed improved skills to get back into the workforce.

One evening a week, Wiersma or another businessman he had recruited would provide practical exercises in résumé writing, interviewing, and interpersonal skills. After just six years, Wiersma has expanded his operation to help, among others, welfare recipients, recent jail and prison parolees, and halfway house work-release clients. He has directly helped about 400 to 500 people in their quest for independent living.

Wiersma has always been concerned about participants quickly getting a job and becoming independent shortly thereafter. That takes skills beyond résumé writing and job interviewing—so Wiersma expanded his program.

Today, Wiersma recruits community professionals including salesmen, retired executives, entrepreneurs, and computer software experts as volunteers. They not only have the skills and business perspective required to teach success, but because they volunteer their time the message of personal commitment and caring is often communicated to participants. In fact, the participants often note that it is the personal attention that motivates them to succeed.

A personal touch sometimes means "tough love." Class participants must undergo a rigorous initial interview designed to eliminate people who are not serious about learning and changing their lives. A volunteer tests and interviews to determine the person’s interests and abilities, résumés are then written, and potential employers are targeted in the hope of finding a job match. Since this is often the first time that the participants seriously consider what they want to do with their working lives, all aspects of the class are designed to increase their personal and professional self-esteem both as workers and people.

The federal government’s War on Poverty has taken thirty years and cost upwards of $5.4 trillion. During the same time the poverty rate has stayed about the same. Policymakers are just beginning to recognize that taxing workers, sending their money to a centralized bureaucracy, and giving some of it to people considered "needy" has failed to reduce poverty, and may have increased it.

Michigan citizens like Henry and Ellen Rykes and Larry Wiersma have known this for years. Instead of just assuming it was someone else’s job to help the poor, they have worked toward privatizing welfare—one person at a time.