When Kenny’s mother caught him selling marijuana at age 14, she flushed the drugs and kept the roll of cash hidden in his jacket. That wasn’t enough. After more than 20 arrests, an armed robbery landed Kenny in federal prison. Six years later he emerged desiring a fresh start. But his old habits, old friends and ugly record promised a dark future. Odds were high that he’d be among the 67 percent of released prisoners to be re-arrested within three years.
So here’s the question. If anything can prove life-changing for a guy like Kenny, is it more likely to come from government … or from the personal engagement of a local nonprofit, perhaps especially a faith-based one? I’d put my money on the latter every time.
Why? At its best, government delivers a mass produced product on a grand scale at a reasonable level of efficiency. Think of roads or food stamps or passports. But when unique situations or special human circumstances arise, government processes often prove inflexible, ineffective, or extremely costly—often, all of the above. Think of the massive cost of the B-1 bomber, or the U.S. Postal Service trying to compete with FedEx, or as we’ve all experienced, attempting to negotiate the DMV when you’ve got a problem that does not fit into its cookie-cutter system.
That’s not to say government can’t play a positive role in addressing social issues. From tax incentives for employers that give ex-cons a second chance to vocational training vouchers for the unemployed, wisely designed policies can be invaluable in helping struggling individuals overcome obstacles. Government can provide part of the ladder a person needs to climb out of a bad place. It also often does well at delivering basic goods en masse, like food or medication, amidst crisis.
But here’s the rub. While government can provide for surface-level needs, it can rarely reach deep into the complex human dilemmas that must be addressed for lasting change and true quality of life, whether in individuals or entire communities.
Given the vastness of our world’s needs, it is hard not to yearn for vast-scale solutions. But alluring as the “big fix” always is, it typically touches only symptoms. That’s why government-run programs may succeed in helping individuals to survive, but rarely enable people to truly thrive.
I observed this regularly on the macro-scale while serving in the White House, and am now reminded of it almost daily interacting with the U.S. foster system. I see committed social workers playing a vital role protecting children from abuse and neglect—ensuring that kids survive. But government systems consistently fall short when it comes to providing the love, nurture, and belonging children most need to thrive.
The statistics for children who spend their childhood in the foster system and “emancipate” without being adopted are dismal. By age 25, less than half are employed. More than 80 percent of males have been arrested (compared to 17 percent of all males). And 68 percent of women are on food stamps, compared to 7 percent overall.
What does this tell us? If we’re serious about addressing human needs, from foster youth to rehabilitating convicts to global poverty, we must doggedly inquire: “What is the real, primary need we’re seeking to solve … and who is most able to effectively address it?”
If a problem is primarily physical, government may well be able to provide an emergency fix. But for virtually every other kind of need, we must look elsewhere.
In this vital search, one foundational principle will rarely mislead us: Complex human problems cannot be resolved apart from human relationship. That is why the things that most often prove decisive in elevating a life are things government cannot provide. Belonging. Accountability. Purpose and hope. Truth-telling paired with support. Knowing you’re loved. In short, care rooted in relationship.
Government can’t deliver this. Local charities and faith-based nonprofits often can. Alongside the more tangible commodities like bus tokens or food or computer literacy training these groups provide (sometimes with government assistance), they offer the relationship and other intangibles decisive in bettering a life for the long haul.
I think of a staff member at a small job-training nonprofit in Oregon who called a recovering meth addict every morning at 6 a.m. for months to make sure she was up for her job. Or a volunteer at a ministry in Zambia who carried HIV/AIDS patients miles on the back of his bicycle every day to get their ARV drug treatments at a faith-based clinic. Or former gang members in Los Angeles who spend their Friday nights shooting pool or watching sports with fatherless boys, mentoring them to beat the odds predicted by their troubled backgrounds.
Houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits are often especially well-equipped to provide this kind of relationally-rooted service. The community of parishioners and volunteers can offer the kind of welcome and belonging one wouldn’t find at a government office. This community also often includes a network that can prove vital in others ways also: potential employers, grandmas willing to babysit, handymen glad to fix a leaky roof. Community like this provides accountability as well, both encouraging and exhorting along the road to a new life.
Faith, by definition, also includes transcendent motivation. For the individual seeking to make life changes, hearing that God cares deeply for them and calls them to a transformed life can change everything. Meanwhile, those motivated to serve by this same conviction are often willing to “go the extra mile” to love and serve. This is why researchers, from Arthur Brooks to Robert Putnam, consistently find that nothing predicts generosity and service like religious commitment.
Thankfully, this was the kind of relationally rooted support that Kenny found when he was released from prison. It was a small, faith-based nonprofit located in one of southeast DC’s roughest neighborhoods. They helped Kenny find housing, connect with companies that would hire ex-cons, and prep for interviews. One individual, a pastor, took Kenney under his wing. He gave Kenny odd jobs while he sought regular work, and spent time with him—working together, talking and listening, seeking both to be a friend to Kenny and keep him on the straight and narrow.
When I last talked with Kenny he’d beaten the odds. A decent construction job. A simple apartment away from bad influences. No re-arrests. Life wasn’t easy, but he was proud and free. As Kenny described it, the pastor and others serving with him were “a backbone” for him. That’s something government just can’t provide.