WASHINGTON -- As the Republican Congress moves to scale back aid to the poor, conservatives predict a rebirth of private philanthropy. But major charities warn they won't be able to fill the gap, and government cutbacks will leave people on the streets.
Conservatives call their new anti-poverty strategy "devolution," meaning to give back. Washington would give back much of the responsibility for the war on poverty to states, communities and volunteer groups.
It's got the Rev. Fred Kammer, president of Catholic Charities USA, seething with frustration.
"We're engaging in this broad social experiment with no testing, no trial run," Father Kammer said. "It's based on a whim that the private sector will pick up the slack. That is sociological speculation fueled by ideological wishfulness."
His prediction: "You will see whole families on the street."
The immediate concern for Catholic Charities and other major aid organizations is that federal social service grants account for a large part of their budgets, 30 percent to 40 percent in many cases.
For example, Catholic Charities in Delaware administers a federally funded program that helps the poor pay utility bills. The program is known by the acronym LIHEAP, and the House has slated it for elimination.
Independent Sector, a national umbrella group for charities, says congressional spending cuts will gouge a $254 billion hole in the budgets of nonprofit organizations over the next seven years.
Catholic Charities estimates that each local church, synagogue or other place of worship will have to raise at least $1.5 million over the seven years to make up for federal cuts in aid to the poor.
But conservatives say big organizations like Catholic Charities have been spoiled by their own reliance on government money.
"There are two types of charities now: those that have become accustomed to taking government money, and those that remain independent," said University of Texas historian Marvin Olasky, whose book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," makes the case for private charity over government welfare.
"The ones used to receiving government money are hollering," added Mr. Olasky, whose ideas are often cited by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "They hate the thought of having to go out on their own."
After 30 years of effort and $5 trillion in cumulative spending, conservatives believe federal anti-poverty programs have unintentionally created a system that pays people to stay poor. They argue it's time to let storefront congregations, civic-minded business people, and neighborhood volunteers take the lead in battling America's social ills. Community-based charities would offer moral and spiritual support, and demand accountability from the poor, in ways that government social workers can't.
"Right now we have a failed system," Mr. Olasky said. "We're just into feeding and housing [the poor.] What's worked historically is not enabling people to remain in poverty, but pushing them to change."
Mr. Olasky acknowledges there will be problems as the government pulls back, but believes it's time to shake the system. "We have been stuck in the mud for 30 years," he said. "There's an attempt now to get out of that mud."
Diana Aviv, director of the Washington office for the Council of Jewish Federations, said she believes there is truth to some of the conservative critique. Many programs could be run more efficiently, she said. Rules set by Congress often add to overhead costs and prevent the best use of aid money.
But Ms. Aviv doesn't see any way to make the numbers work, especially in the long run. (The local Jewish Federations raise money and provide support services for thousands of social service programs.)
"When there's an immediate crisis of a time-limited nature, like air-lifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel, people are asked to dig deeper, and they do," Ms. Aviv said. "When it comes to a long-term sustained increase in giving, there's no community that believes they'll be able to make that come about."
Ms. Aviv estimates that some of the major charities will be facing cuts of 15 to 20 percent in their overall budgets. And this is at a time when they're expecting a significant increase in the number of people seeking aid.