Private charity, the kind administered by non-profits, is almost certainly the worst way of helping people ever invented. As the stats on social mobility indicate, having a rich or moderately rich family to fall back on is a great way to avoid the poor house. Having charity to fall back on? Not so much.
What about faith communities? One problem has been demonstrated by Hamas and the Taliban: allowing religion to fill social service gaps gives radical religions a fantastic way to earn the support of otherwise reasonable people.
The big problem with leaving social services to religious groups is that they are not up to the job.
The inability of private charity to solve our problems was examined at length by Mike Konzcal in The Volunteerism Fantasy:
Informal networks of local support, from churches to ethnic affiliations, were all overrun in the Great Depression. Ethnic benefit societies, building and loan associations, fraternal insurance policies, bank accounts, and credit arrangements all had major failure rates. All of the fraternal insurance societies that had served as anchors of their communities in the 1920s either collapsed or had to pull back on their services due to high demand and dwindling resources. Beyond the fact that insurance wasn’t available, this had major implications for spending, as moneylending as well as benefits for sickness and injuries were reduced.
What’s most worth noting is that, in the end, both beneficiaries of fraternal societies and private charities themselves welcomed this transition. During the Great Depression, citizens, especially the range of white ethnic communities in the largest cities, watched as mass unemployment tore down institution after institution. From fraternal societies to banks to charities, the web of private institutions was no match for the Great Depression. As documented in Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal, these white ethnic communities turned to the New Deal to provide the baseline of security that their voluntary societies were unable to offer during a deep recession. As a result of the implosion of the voluntary societies they depended upon, working-class families looked to the government and unions for protections against unstable banks and the risks of the Four Horsemen [of accident, illness, old age, loss of a job].
Konzcal's whole piece is fantastic: insight packed history and advice on what comes next.
For a variety of reasons, Reaganists argue that we should solve today's problems by scaling up private charity with tax dollars.
This, as it turns out, is what Herbert Hoover tried. You may have heard that it didn't work. Here's Konzcal:
The Hoover Administration’s initial response to the Great Depression was to supplement private aid without creating the type of permanent public social insurance programs that would arise in the New Deal. Hoover’s goal was to maintain, in the words of the historian Ellis Hawley, a “nonstatist alternative to atomistic individualism, the romantic images of voluntarism as more truly democratic than any government action, and the optimistic assessments of the private sector’s capacity for beneficial governmental action.” As President Hoover said in 1931, much like conservatives do today, any response to the economic crisis must “maintain the spirit of charity and mutual self-help through voluntary giving” in order for him to support it.
Noble as that goal may be, it failed. The more Hoover leaned on private agencies, the more resistance he found. Private firms and industry did not want to play the role that the government assigned them, and even those that did found it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out those responsibilities. The Red Cross, for instance, did not want to move beyond providing disaster relief. Other groups, like the Association of Community Chests and Councils, had no interest in trying to coordinate funds at a national, rather than local, level. Hoover understood that private charity wasn’t getting to rural areas, yet private charities couldn’t be convinced to meet these needs.
Of course, there's a difference. The Hoover version had a goal of actually solving problems and so necessarily has strings attached to the money. The 21st Century GOP version is just "give them money". Turns out charities like no strings attached money.
This becomes an issue now because, as reported in the NYT:
Last month, Mr. Obama promised he would soon sign the executive order, which would bar federal contractors from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He said he was acting on his own because a drive in Congress for a national anti-bias law to cover nearly all employers, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, had stalled.
What does federal contracting have to do with religion? It turns out that the Federal Government hires churches to provide government services and the churches would like to continue to use tax dollars to discriminate against gay people. They put it differently:
The [religious] groups said many organizations doing vital work for the federal government in overseas relief, prisons and technical aid maintained religious-based “employee moral conduct standards” that could be affected by the order.
Well then. If that's the case there is a simple solution: stop contacting out "vital work". All the evidence is that governments are better than religions at everything a government might want to pay for.
The religious groups on the letter include World Relief, Catholic Charities, The Christian Community Development Association, and Bethany Christian Services. What do the do? World Relief:
We practice principles of transformational development to empower local churches in the United States and around the world so they can serve the vulnerable in their communities. With initiatives in education, health, child development, agriculture, food security, anti-trafficking, immigrant services, micro-enterprise, disaster response and refugee resettlement, we work holistically with the local church to stand for the sick, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the displaced, the devastated, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised.
So basically, they funnel money to churches to help people. Or we could cut out two layers of admin expenses and just help people!