Maybe it's because of the impending tax filing deadline, but we are seeing a sudden spate of muscular defenses of a government safety net against the alleged conservative view that private charity could assist those in need—and replace government. Both Mike Konczal, writing in Journal Democracy and reprinted in The Atlantic, and Michael Hitzik, in the Los Angeles Times, assert that a new wave of conservatism—led by Paul Ryan and Mike Lee, and following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan—would gut the current federal social insurance system based on a flawed view of history; a view, as Konczal puts it, that “before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance they could do it again.” Hitkik's title gets to the same point: “Private charity can't replace government social programs.”
There are two considerable problems with their arguments. First, no serious conservative today is calling for the federal social insurance programs—social security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance—to be repealed. Yes, there are proposals to put them on a sound fiscal footing and, in the case of old age insurance, to encourage personal saving and investment. But the battle over whether there should be a government role in basic income support, protecting against the exigencies of old age and illness, is, in effect, over.
Yet that should not lead us to the conclusion that government can do a better job than private charity. Indeed, Konczal and Hitzik avoid the fact that there is a huge apparatus of government-funded social programs—whether job training, early childhood education, or foster care—which have proven ineffective. In reality, there are all sorts of social services in which the state has shown that it cannot, effectively, replace charity. To understand what's wrong with the “charity can't replace government” argument, however, one must first understand what's right with it.
The sheer provision of income in exigency is something government can do well. Government, in other words, can be very good at sending out checks—whether the program is social security, the earned income tax credit, food stamps or unemployment compensation. Although waste and fraud are serious problems, it does a (basically) good job paying those who provide health care services through Medicare and Medicaid. This is to say that to the extent that we decide, as a polity, to redistribute income for certain purposes, government can do so.
Indeed it is the case that, in the pre-New Deal era, privation during economic and personal crisis was an unfortunate feature of American life—and that government social insurance (safety net programs financed in part through individual contributions) therefore constitutes a logical response. As such, merely “passing the hat” amongst private charities would not, alone, suffice. It is also true that, in the Depression era and before, we were a far poorer country: saving for rainy days was often difficult for people of modest means.
This is not to say that there is no room for reform of such programs. On the contrary, individual savings accounts, say, might be a useful complement for government minimums, while a range of health insurance “products” might well be offered to Medicare participants (who, of course, already contribute to a share of the outlays). This is precisely the sort of thing Paul Ryan is trying to discuss—even as he's demagogued as someone who wants to gut social insurance programs altogether.
But not all—not even close to all—of what government does in the name of those in need falls in the category of social insurance (defined as programs meant for all and for which all contribute). The Administration for Children and Families, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has an annual budget of some $51 billion for roughly 60 social service programs, including Head Start and various foster care and anti-teen gang initiatives. Meanwhile, the federal Department of Labor administers no fewer than 47 job-training programs, at a cost of $18 billion annually.
There is simply far less reason to believe that these sorts of programs—which require working with individuals on specific needs, rather than simply sending out a check—are as effective as social insurance programs. Take Head Start which—notwithstanding the power of its name and early pilot versions promising great hope for disadvantaged children—has consistently been found, in evaluations based on randomized, controlled trials, to provide little or no lasting benefit.
Here, in other words, is where government cannot replace charity—when the need is for committed, idealistic staff (paid or volunteer) to work with individuals on specific problems. (This is a central theme in my short book, Philanthropy Under Fire.) Consider, for example, the difference between job training programs—a key need in our contemporary economy—funded by government and programs supported by private, charitable means.
Of those enrolled in programs supported by the Workforce Investment Act, which provides publicly-funded services to around 7 million annually (typically through government contractors), just slightly over half (56 percent) found jobs—of which another 20 percent lost their (newly acquired) jobs within six months. Contrast this with the entirely private, philanthropically-supported job readiness program, Cincinnati Works. The first of a number of such programs championed by founders Dave and Liane Phillips, the program focuses on instilling the habits and attitudes that lead to success in the workplace. The latter's placement and job retention rate: 84 percent.
It is true, admittedly, that the reach of government social programs of this sort can be great. Yet reach without grasp is not the same as value. And philanthropically-supported programs can spread, often through imitation in other cities.
Cincinnati Works founder Dave Phillips has actively sought to be a “Johnny Appleseed”, spreading his program's approach around the country. What's more, there are growing numbers of examples of program replication without government funding, including: the network of free health clinics supported by the NGO, Volunteers in Medicine; and numerous local programs to help the elderly live independently, inspired by Boston's Beacon Hill Village (and spread through its Village to Village network).
One wishes proponents of pre-kindergarten education, for instance, would look to local groups around the country to support the best of such efforts, rather than making the same mistake we've already made with Head Start (a program which combines generous funding with mediocre performance).
If defenders of social insurance (correctly) expect conservatives to acknowledge the established role of such programs (i.e. the “charity cannot replace government” argument), it is, similarly, high time for liberals to acknowledge the failure of government to (successfully) replace what charitably-funded, non-governmental programs do best: help individuals thrive.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2014/04/10/lesson-for-april-15-why-government-cant-replace-charity/