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The news from the front is encouraging. “Welfare reform working,” shouts one USA Today headline. “Welfare rolls falling,” another paper declares. The bold new course of reform charted by the 1996 welfare reform act appears to be on a path to success. In Arizona, there is a surge of married men looking for, and finding, jobs. In Florida, welfare rolls have fallen seventeen percent in just seven months. Nationwide, states are reveling in the additional 1.5 billion dollars in welfare money they have this year. Set against the declining rolls, states are having to work to figure out how to spend all the extra money they have, and all of this has occurred before the welfare laws are officially enacted. There is a temptation to look at facts and figures like these and say contentedly that our work is done. In reality, our work has not even begun.

The road to reform was rocky; well-intentioned people on both sides of the political aisle engaged in passionate debates about what sort of reform would be the best kind. Some believed that de-entitling welfare would be akin to allowing states to have a “race to the bottom”—a contest to see who could lower their benefits packages the fastest. Others believed that all we really needed to do was lower the governmental barriers and suddenly, almost magically, the private sector would kick in and all would be right with the world.

Frankly, it is far too early to make either judgment, for this round of reform is unlike any other the welfare system has experienced. Prior reform consisted of Washington-led efforts at tinkering with the system. While there were certainly genuine changes made in the reforms of the 1970s and 1980s, those changes were managed by government. For instance, in 1988, under the Family Support Act, new laws for work provisions were put into place. To the “extent resources permit[ted]” states were to require participation in education, work, and training programs by all welfare mothers with no child under three. In addition, states were required to “enroll in work-related activity at least eleven percent of ‘employable’ adult recipients.” These provisions, of course, were all executed, managed, and monitored by the government—little was required of the private sector.

Promise and Peril

While there is still an enormous governmental role in this round of reform, there is a qualitative difference between it and past reforms. With the de-entitlement of welfare, states and communities are now the ones “on point,” not Washington. More importantly, there is the growing sense across the land that if this attempt at reform is going to result in real change, it is going to have to be led by families, churches, neighborhoods, and communities—not the government.

This reality is full of both promise and peril. The promise lies in the reality that much of the private sector does tremendous work meeting the needs and problems of the poor and addicted. The peril is that the same kind of hardheaded scrutiny that has been applied to government-run welfare will not be applied to private-sector efforts.

For the past several decades conservative lawmakers in particular have been fixated on removing some of the enormous barriers put in place by the overly intrusive federal government. As such, conservatives have become experts at exposing the flaws of the governmental system. They know what is working and what is not. They know about abuse, fraud, and cost overruns. And more important, they know about the horror the current system has produced in the lives of this nation’s now-permanent underclass.

As responsibility for social programs begins to shift to the private sector, the conservatives who have so masterfully dissected government must turn their attention to the problems of the private sector. Unless they do, they will fall into the same trap liberals have fallen into with government: They have been so reluctant to criticize for so long that they have compromised themselves.

Conservatives cannot fall into this trap. Rhetorically, they have used to their great advantage anecdotes from private sector efforts at reform. Stories about the transformational impact of faith-based charities in particular have been particularly effective, for they not only reveal the hope of nongovernmental reform but also stand in stark contrast to what the impersonal, bureaucratic, government programs had become. Their stories are powerful and moving but incomplete.

Now that reform is a reality, conservatives must be at the leading edge of the movement that helps distinguish between the parts of the private sector that are truly private, effective, and transformational and those parts of the private sector that are little different in mission, means, or orientation from the kind of governmental approach to charity that has come to define the past thirty years. Failure to do so will result in a failure of reform.

Simple, Successful

As others like Marvin Olasky and Barbara von der Heydt have written, the characteristics of successful groups are quite simple. First, they are challenging. They make moral demands of those who want to give help and to those who want to receive it. Second, they are personal. They are defined by close relationships among those who help and those who are being helped. And third, they are spiritual. They recognize that those in need of help are fundamentally spiritual creations and need to be treated as such. Though simple, these few characteristics go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff, and if we would apply these principles and others like them to the private sector, we would very quickly be able to make important distinctions about the best and worst in private-sector charitable efforts.

For the past several generations we have grown accustomed to hearing about and supporting those big charitable organizations that take out television or magazine ads. Though many of these groups are indeed impressive, the most impressive are ones few have likely heard about, like the He Is Pleased program run out of Wilmington, Delaware.

He Is Pleased—brainchild of Foster Friess, head of Brandywine Mutual Fund—helps transition the homeless from the streets to paying, private sector jobs. A regular on the Metroliner trains that run between Washington, D.C., and New York, Friess was bothered by two problems: the hopelessness and despair on the faces of the homeless men and women he passed on a daily basis, and the trash that lined the highways and railroad tracks he traveled. As one who had taken to the highways himself with a trash bag and a poker to clean things up, Friess thought it would be interesting to see if the homeless would be willing to be paid to spend ninety days beautifying the surroundings. In return, they would be paid a wage above minimum, be subject to drug tests, and be required to be diligent about both their work schedules and work habits. If they made it through the ninety-day program without using drugs and with a positive attitude, he would commit to giving them a bonus to help find them a new apartment and a full-time job with one of the Wilmington-area firms that needed help.

Several years and about a hundred formerly homeless later, the program is a bona fide success. Led by a compassionately tough man named Tom Weller, the program operates on a shoestring; there are no offices, no business cards, and no fancy letterhead. All the money goes to the program—to paying Weller’s salary and the workers’ wages, and to helping the homeless find a way off the streets.

This is not the kind of program we regularly read about. It is not the type highlighted by newspapers or in celebrity-rich United Way ads. But it is exactly the kind of community-based, community-led, faith-oriented program that needs to be supported if the hope of reform is to become the reality of reform.

Positive Externalities

One important and telling characteristic of reform not widely touted is the sociological phenomenon called “positive externality.” Simply put, successful groups are not successful only because they do a good job meeting the needs of the population they serve but also because they have a positive impact on people they do not serve directly. For instance, in northeast Washington, D.C., Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green runs a small learning center for the kids in the Franklin Commons Housing Project. Its simple mission is to provide a place where these at-risk kids can go after school to get love, help with their school work, and moral guidance to get them through the tough choices they face. Early evidence is that the kids in the center are being turned around—in some cases, dramatically.

But the real story may be found in the changed lives of some of those kids’ parents. Donnell Jones, the learning center’s executive director tells the story of one father who, at first, rarely showed up to drop off, pick up, or help his child. Whenever he did come, however he tended to hang around a few extra minutes, looking at what the kids were doing or talking to one of the mentors or one of the teachers. Over time, the father’s participation became more regular and the visits a little longer. Eventually, the father took Donnell aside and said, “You know, I was an addict, I abused my kids, but thanks to the example of kindness and love I’ve seen here, I’ve turned my life around. I’m not saying I’m healed; I’m saying I’m trying to get better.” That kind of positive yet thoroughly unintended consequence is the type of thing to look for in organizations that work.

For years, congressmen and senators passed welfare bills and then sat back to see if their rhetoric and theories were confirmed by reality. This time, with this bill, however, members of Congress have a new opportunity and new responsibility not to sit back and watch but to step up and act.

At a meeting of congressmen and senators, jointly sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and Empower America, Bradley Foundation President Michael Joyce challenged members to go back to their districts and do what they could do to help those small, anonymous faith-based efforts that were making such an extraordinary difference in the lives of so many.

To date, not many members have taken up this challenge, but hopefully, more will. For example, The American Compass is starting to work with Congress to highlight and help local charities that are making the biggest difference at the margin in the lives of those they are trying to serve. These are not grand steps, but they are the kind of small acts of community that will help determine whether the potential for success we have will be a reality we see.