Lately, it has become fashionable that churches and charities should replace government in funding and managing social services. Mike Konczal calls this “the voluntarism fantasy,” saying that a “complex interaction between public and private social insurance… has always existed in the United States.”
So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an “existence minimum” which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. Since the guarantee of stability promised by an existence minimum is the foundation upon which lives can be built — and because voluntary private charity is by nature not a guarantee — the state is the best mechanism to deliver a baseline standard of living.
Another practical Christian consideration ruling in favor of a state-provided existence minimum arises from the troubling power situations created by leaving the necessities of life up to the auspices of private charities — even churches. As Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, like the noblesse oblige of pre-industrial days, “philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the privileged are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”
In other words, Niebuhr is remarkably realistic about the motives that give rise to charitable giving among the wealthy, whose gifts by nature of their size have the biggest impact. Niebuhr’s analysis may seem somewhat cynical, but it is true that the wealthy tend to give more to universities, museums, and arts organizations — all arenas in which their power and prestige are more easily connoted and recognized by their peers with whom they compete for status. The poor, meanwhile, tend to give to churches and social service organizations.
Konczal original articles is found here.