Go for the vouchers

Time to cut through the malarkey and give them a test

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

WORLD's editor, Marvin Olasky, keeps reminding everyone that while involved in the debate over public support for faith-based charities, we should use a logical three-step sequence to engage the argument.

First, he stresses, we need to comb through all the existing laws and administrative rulings on the books and weed out everything that needlessly gets in the way of effective programs being attempted by private initiative.

Second, Mr. Olasky says, provide tax credits for support of private agencies engaged in useful social and welfare programs. If you decide this week, for example, to send your personal check for $500 to a Christian center treating alcoholics, it should be no big deal for the government to credit you with $500, and to let you deduct that amount from the taxes you would otherwise owe next April 15. Such tax credits are already used for a whole list of efforts; they tend to be much less controversial than outright government grants.

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Only then do we have to start arguing about those outright grants-which are admittedly a thorny problem for many thoughtful conservatives as well as for kneejerk separation-of-church-and-state worrywarts. Whatever arguments about fairness and evenhandedness we may advance (and we should), it's a simple fact that handing out federal dollars for direct Christian, Islamic, or New Age evangelism per se is a troubling matter.

So, on the one hand, we've got lots of things we can do before figuring out how to do direct grants in an equitable way. But, on the other hand, just dropping that assignment to the end of the list doesn't make it go away. And the very fact that it looms there like a bogey man in the shadows casts a certain pall even over steps one and two.

So let's take care of the bogey man-right up front. Let's take the bull by the horns, wrestle him to the ground, and proclaim that we can quit worrying about the hard issue down the road. The solution to the problems associated with getting government resources into the hands of faith-based charities isn't all that hard.

The solution, of course, is vouchers. Editor Olasky alluded to it in his WORLD column last week. Now all of us need to sing in harmony on this key and critical issue. Vouchers have already worked on other fronts. They've worked for years, for example, with groceries and with college and seminary educations. No conceivable argument against them holds water.

No one worries, for example, that the food stamp program is going to let Safeway take over the retail grocery trade, thereby putting Kroger out of business. The likelihood is strong that as long as the government goes on placing grocery vouchers in people's hands, those people will be pretty even-handed at making their purchases at a variety of stores.

You may argue that the government shouldn't be distributing the vouchers in the first place-but given their commitment to do so, giving the funds directly to the consumers and not the vendors is a lot less susceptible to corruption, or, for that matter, the church-state argument. Imagine the mess if Uncle Sam were to give huge blocs of food stamps to A&P or to a manufacturer like Campbell's Soup, charging those vendors with getting the food into the hands of the consumers! No, the consumers themselves are incredibly efficient at sorting out all the distribution problems. Nobody argues that we need a government grocery store to get the prices down and make groceries accessible for the poor.

Similarly, as this column has noted several times, the famous GI Bill did parallel wonders in the field of higher education for a generation following World War II. With no rancorous debate, and no apparent congressional or high court worries about the "establishment of religion," vouchers were issued by the millions to military veterans to take to institutions as diverse as Harvard, UCLA, Notre Dame, Columbia Bible College, Moody Bible Institute, and the Hebrew Theological College of Skokie, Ill. None of them came to dominate the religious landscape of America-but none of them were cut out of the action, either. The students themselves-the educational consumers-sorted everything out just fine, thank you, just as they always tend to do in a free market.

The same system will work in tending to other social needs. We can fight drugs and poverty and illiteracy and family desertion and a host of other evils without a single new government program. Thousands of agencies to fight those problems already exist. The people with the problems know how to find those agencies. All we need to do is equip the people with the problems with a little funding, and everything will work itself out.

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