What's Behind Joni Ernst's Welfare Complaint?

What would it mean to replace the safety net with private charity?

By Nathan Pippenger

GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst recently argued, echoing a familiar right-wing complaint, that Americans “have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do.” Taking the long view, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig notes that the supposedly-lost ideal—a world in which welfare provision comes entirely from private charities and churches—probably never existed. Even in the Middle Ages, she notes, when the Church was considerably more powerful, “charity was neither asked to solve large-scale problems nor expected to.”

Appeals like this are a common way to attack the welfare state without seeming cold-hearted (what Mike Konczal, in these pages, recently termed “the voluntarism fantasy”). And in some cases, they emerge from sincerely held worries about both the plight of the underprivileged and the size of the state. Some proponents of a privatized-welfare model even make the quasi-philosophical argument that voluntary generosity sustains social ties and promotes empathy, while “coerced” generosity (i.e., tax-funded welfare programs) promotes resentment and a reluctant dutifulness that actually undermines empathy in the long run.

That latter argument is almost always present, if sometimes implicitly, in libertarian complaints about the welfare state. Listening to those arguments, you could almost forget that welfare policies aren’t really forced on us; they’re things we’ve deliberated over and voted on, things we’ve created democratically—to the extent that we create anything democratically—through politics. So there’s a sense in which that portrayal doesn’t accurately capture welfare policies. But more to the point, complaints like Ernst’s are just hopelessly detached from practical reality—and it’s here that the “compassionate” argument for replacing welfare with private charity really falls short.

The fact of the matter is simple: Private organizations simply aren’t up to the job. Their funding is often less stable and reliable than that of public agencies. They can’t be held to the same kinds of accountability that apply to public servants. They might, for religious or other reasons, allocate their resources in unusual ways or decline to serve certain populations—turning away the needy in a way that public representatives can’t. And then there’s the simple question of resources, pithily summed up by John J. DiIulio, who should know (he was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives):

But, make no mistake: while faith-based organizations can supplement and strengthen public social service programs, they can by no means substitute for government support. To dramatize the point, just consider that even if all 353,000 religious congregations in America doubled their annual budgets and devoted them entirely to the cause and even if the cost of government social welfare programs was magically cut by one-fifth, the congregations would barely cover a year’s worth of Washington’s spending on those programs and never even come close to covering total program costs.

That’s from the 2001 Brookings publication Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?. For me, it effectively debunks the crucial assumption behind Ernst’s complaint: Even if it were a politically responsible idea to let churches (and, let’s assume, private charities) take over welfare from the state, they simply would not have the resources to do it. Not even close. And that would be true even if, as DiIulio says, the government’s spending on social welfare programs “was magically cut by one-fifth.” Anyone who laments the role of government in welfare provision has to face that basic question of scale. Otherwise, it’s hard to avoid concluding that their compassionate rhetoric is simply masking a far more callous ambition.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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