CHICAGO -- President Clinton's decision last week to sign the Republican welfare bill, transferring much of the responsibility and cost for the poor to the states, is unsettling many Democrats. Some among them claim that children will starve and their mothers will be thrown into the street when they can't find work.
What is more likely to happen is that those who have made poverty their profession will be making a career change.
Much of government's answer to poverty has been the equivalent of a topical solution to an internal disease. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, too many believe that poverty persists because the $5.1 trillion we have spent fighting it has been insufficient.
While Democrats partied in fancy hotels and restaurants and indulged themselves in the fiction that government can solve our deepest problems, I decided to visit a place that could be the future of an effective war on poverty: the 119-year-old Pacific Garden Mission.
Appropriately founded in a converted beer hall, the mission houses more than 500 poor and homeless men on an average night (a guide calls them "our overnight guests" -- they may not have a home, but their dignity is honored). Last month, more than 94,000 meals were served and 220,000 pieces of clothing given away by the dedicated, mostly volunteer staff, many of them former drunks, drug addicts and homeless men. Women and children, often the victims of physical abuse, are housed at the Gospel League Home a few blocks away.
A strict rule
For those who plan to stay and get their lives together, a strict rule applies: You don't work, you don't eat.
But work is not seen as punishment. It is part of the redemption process. People here believe God-esteem precedes self-esteem. "Everything the homeless have is worn out -- their shoes, their clothes, their souls," says the announcer for "Unshackled," a radio drama that has been broadcast from Pacific Garden Mission for 47 years on more than 1,000 stations worldwide. The mission meets all three needs.
Such missions were common in most big cities before government six decades ago took over the job of helping the poor. But government could work only on the outside. It lacked the power to change the poor on the inside and redirect their lives in ways that empower them to do for themselves.
A thought came to me as I walked through the mission. One thing government could do is to supply every church in Chicago and in other cities the names of people currently receiving public assistance and when their benefits would expire. This would be a challenge for churches -- to contact the needy -- and reassume the role they hold by divine mandate and a major reason for their existence on Earth.
For those churches that have been putting their money into large buildings and larger programs, and which might be reluctant to cut back on the material in favor of the spiritual, local press could be alerted to the names being distributed in their area. Reporters could follow up with pastors, asking if they have made contact with "the least of these," and bring editorial pressure to bear if they have not.
Government would then be a last resort, not a first resource, for any who might slip through the cracks.
The results produced by Pacific Garden Mission are astounding and, in far more cases than the government can boast, lifelong. No government money is involved, just good hearts. Those who commit themselves to aid the lives of the poor are changed as well.
Wouldn't this be a far more powerful and effective "Christian coalition" than the one currently trying to change America from Washington? Perhaps if a changed heart was made primary and politics secondary, our politics would also be redeemed. Democrats should check out Pacific Garden Mission while they're in town. And it wouldn't hurt Republicans to pay a visit, too.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/27/96