Seducing the Samaritan

WITH THE DECLINE OF THE WELFARE STATE, liberals and conservatives are trying to enlist private charities to help cure social ills seemingly immune to government antidotes. Better late than never. But plans to step up state and federal funding for these groups ignore the lessons of government’s experiment—begun in earnest in the 1960s—in bankrolling social service agencies.

I interviewed leaders at some three dozen private agencies in Massachusetts, representing a range of social services, most of them deeply dependent on government grants and contracts. What these providers reveal is that government support comes with government oversight. My study suggests that government is remaking providers in its own bureaucratic image:

1. Government funding causes organizational mission creep. This was the phrase used to describe the shift in the objectives of U.S. marines in Somalia: from delivering food to chasing down local warlords. For private agencies on the public dole, it means bending their agendas to secure contracts—allowing distant politicians and bureaucrats, rather than frontline workers, to set program goals.

Kristin McCormack, formerly of Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses, recalls a summer camp contract with the Department of Social Services. After years of struggling to help the DSS kids, McCormack told a state official her agency wanted to terminate the contract, that it simply didn’t fit their mission or resources. The DSS official reminded McCormack of the $2 million in day-care contracts her agency had with the state. She renewed the contract.

“It becomes almost like heroin,” says Ed Gotgart, President of the Massachusetts Association of Nonprofit Schools and Colleges. “You build your program around this assumpton that you can’t survive without government money.”

2. Government focuses on delivering services, not results. Bureaucrats excel at quantifying care: the number of clients counseled, beds provided, days spent in drug detoxification. But government contracts tend to ignor actual outcomes in people’s lives.

“Nobody gives a darn if the kid got better,” says Joyce Strom of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a leading recipient of family-service contracts. “All the auditors look at in my budgets is to see if I bought as many pencils and spent as much on gas as I said I did.”

Consider Boston’s Pine Street Inn, which provides food and housing to nearly a thousand men, women, and children each day. The shelter, largely dependent on HUD grants, places no work or education requirements on its residents. Even the no-drinking rule is qualified: some residents walk a few yards from the shelter to a “wet park,” a place where they can drink alcohol unmolested all day long, and return in the evening, no questions asked.

3. Government tends to secularize religious agencies. Faith-based providers cannot discriminate in hiring based on religious or sexual orientation, for example, once they tap into public-funding streams. But if staff members, and the faith they bring with them, do not help define a religious institution, what does?

The Salvation Army is long known for its Bible-based approach to rehabilitation. But under the Army’s state-funded programs, if clients hear a sermon on sobriety, it will be after hours and never from a state-paid counselor or program director. “Not as part of the job description would they do anything religious,” says Jeff Green, Social Service Coordinator for the Army’s Bay Area Centers. “That’s the minister’s role.” So to avoid church-state challenges, religious groups must divorce their government-funded acts of charity from explicit expressions of faith.

Sociologist Peter Berger, a longtime student of the impact of the modern secular state, warns that “he who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.” It seems that for many private agencies under contract, their spoons are not long enough.

Now that state governments are exercising greater control over welfare policy, what can they do to make it easier for charities and other private agencies to help the needy? First, they should loosen their regulatory grip over these groups. They should allow private alternatives to state licensing agencies so that ex-drug addicts, for example—who may lack professional credentials—could counsel those struggling with addictions. They can reform liability laws to encourage medical professionals to donate time at free clinics.

Second, states should help shift the culture of caregiving by encouraging private agencies to get off the public dole. They could establish and encourage a combination of public and private vouchers for services, placing more decision-making power in the hands of consumers. They can create charity tax credits (modeled on legislation by U.S. Senator Dan Coats) that would help connect taxpayers to effective charites in their own backyards.

Until we shatter government’s monopoly over the compassion business, it will continue to seduce, and subvert, charitable groups under contract: “I think we’re going to lose the war, because the state controls all the money,” says Patrick Villani, Director of St. Ann’s Home in Metheun, Massachusetts. “And now they can develop exactly the kind of providers they want.”

Warnings like that are coming from some of the most politically honed providers in one of the nation’s most progressive states. Let’s hope they won’t be lost on those determined to offer effective help to the nation’s neediest.


Mr. Loconte is deputy editor of Policy Review and author of Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services, a new book published by the Pioneer Institute.