The Voluntarism Fantasy?

Original Article

“Food banks are wonderful. But not as wonderful as food stamps.” This is the caption for a photo of volunteers sorting and packing food, featured with a recent Slate blog post by Jordan Weissmann. The post is entitled “Why Charity Can’t Replace the Safety Net.” It refers to an article by Mike Konczal in Democracy entitled “The Voluntarism Fantasy.” Konczal says that conservatives have missed the lessons of history.

[The conservative vision] fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. Most importantly, it points us in the wrong direction. The last 30 years have seen effort after effort to try and push the policy agenda away from the state’s capabilities and toward private mechanisms for mitigating the risks we face in the world. This effort is exhausted, and future endeavors will require a greater, not lesser, role for the public.

In fact, to their shame, conservative leaders have had relatively little to say about poverty issues since the Welfare Reform of 1996, with the brief exception of President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and focus on faith-based initiatives. Now Congressman Paul Ryan is leading the charge for compassion, not by endorsing more bureaucracy, but by crafting policies that consider the full range of resources available to solve problems in a free society.

Seeing this, defenders of bureaucracy have begun to rally. They perceive a threat to bureaucracy far more meaningful than all the years of conservative talk about limited government. Not that there’s anything nothing wrong with the limited government argument, but limited government in itself is not a real alternative to big government when it comes to helping the poor. Poor kids need fathers and mentors, and single moms need husbands. Unemployed dads need jobs, and jobless young adults need jobs or job training or a college education.

Government has a role to play in all of this for sure, but it cannot restore or strengthen a human relationship. Relationships come from individual connections—shared values, common bonds, and a sense of mutual responsibility. While right and left go on arguing about the proper size of government, few on the right and few on the left have had much to say about relationships.

The right’s new focus on alternatives to the War on Poverty is less about cutting public budgets and more about designing policies that encourage relationships. As Konczal quotes Senator Mike Lee of Utah, the “alternative to big government is not small government” but “a voluntary civil society.”

But Konczal says there was never a time that government was not involved in social welfare. He refers to nineteenth-century poorhouses and post-Civil War pension systems for veterans and single mothers. As for civil society in early America, its charities were “regionally segregated and isolated,” its health care programs were inadequate, and “[p]rivate charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond” to societal problems like disease, disability, and unemployment.

Then came the Great Depression. “Informal networks of local support, from churches to ethnic affiliations, were all overrun in the Great Depression,” according to Konczal. Initially, President Hoover tried to balance government aid with private charity and voluntarism, but “[t]he more Hoover leaned on private agencies, the more resistance he found.” Historian Ellis Hawley is quoted as saying that Hoover failed to see that “the private sector was inherently incapable of meeting the demand for social services on its own.”

The charitable sector “welcomed” the transition from the predominance of private charity to mostly public provision for welfare, according to Konczal.

From fraternal societies to banks to charities, the web of private institutions was no match for the Great Depression. . . . Charities would now look to the welfare state to take care of absolute poverty and the broad conditions of social insurance, while charities could fill in targeted, narrow, yet important gaps in this broad baseline of coverage.

In Konczal’s vision, government bureaucracies are to be the main provider of human services, with charity as a gap-filler. Government’s responsibility to maintain a welfare system “doesn’t kill private charity,” says Konczal. “It allows it to fully thrive. It enables private charity to respond with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities, rather than shouldering the huge, cumbersome burden of alleviating the income insecurities of a modern age.”

Let’s consider two big problems with Konczal’s argument.

First, government has an awful track record on poverty. In fact, despite massive investments in bureaucracies, government handouts are just as much to blame for the cycle of poverty that has afflicted so many Americans as any other factor. Bureaucratic approaches may have been the most convenient way to address poverty in the last century, but thoughtful liberals and conservatives today are seeking alternatives ways to solve problems rather than maintaining the status quo. Recognition of the need to reform welfare in the mid-1990s and create the right incentives for people to go to work ultimately transcended party labels. Even as we admit a role for government in addressing poverty, we cannot give up the quest for serious reforms that truly help the poor.

Second, we simply haven’t tried growing the charitable sector to meet the needs of the “modern age.” Konczal tells us that this modern responsibility is “huge” and “cumbersome,” so that government alone could shoulder such a burden. But there is a growing movement of social entrepreneurs working far beyond government to solve some of the most difficult poverty challenges facing urban, rural, and suburban communities. New civic networks are taking shape, aiming to solve society’s problems through technology and a spirit of collaboration — see my latest post on charitable networks here. Americans are generous and innovative and they want to be involved in their communities. Government is generally not the right platform for social entrepreneurship, networks, or civic innovation. Even Konczal recognizes that the charitable sector can “respond with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities.” These are the qualities that would make the charitable sector well-suited not just to fill the gaps, but to take on more and more of the primary responsibility for helping neighbors in need.

True, government can access and disburse money at a scale that no family, ministry, or nonprofit can ever do. But money is not the issue. Human beings are relational creatures, and the relational arrangements made possible in civil society are preferable to a delivery model that takes place in a top-down bureaucracy with all the money on the planet. At the end of the day, government is incapable of loving.

If there’s anything we need more of in America today, it sure isn’t bureaucracy. What we need is more volunteers and givers. If every American did just a bit more to help their community, we’d all be better off—this is the message of hope for our time, not Mr. Konczal’s defense of bureaucracy. Let’s step up and do our part to prove that communities are far better at loving and caring for people than any bureaucracy ever was.


Hans Zeiger is the director of the Chapman Center for Civic Leadership.

Hans Zeiger

Director, Chapman Center for Civic Leadership
Hans Zeiger served as the director of the Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, leading the Chapman Fellows program. He serves in the Washington State Senate, representing the 25th Legislative District, covering central Pierce County. Hans was elected to the State House of Representatives in 2010 and reelected in 2012 and 2014, representing the 25th Legislative District. Hans was recognized as the co-recipient of the Gabrielle Giffords Award for Civility, he serves in the Washington Air National Guard, sits on the boards of the Washington State Historical Society, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, and was a 2017 Leadership Fellow of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and a 2018 Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Institute. Hans graduated from Puyallup High School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale College and a Masters degree in Public Policy from Pepperdine University.