Civil Society and Public Assistance



Can we get over the unease between the role and participation of civil society and faith-based organizations in the delivery of social services and other types of aid provided by government agencies? Since the rise of the modern Welfare State ushered in by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in its attempt to combat the most onerous aspects of the Great Depression, liberals have cast a critical eye on some civil society efforts to provide social services. 

To some degree this is a watchdog attempt to make sure the State doesn’t neglect the most vulnerable members of society. However, there also is a sense that some private organizations—especially religious ones—will use relief efforts to further their own goals, which might run counter to the common good. Liberal politicians thus tend to view private and religious social aid organizations with skepticism—especially in circumstances where public dollars may be directed toward such organizations.

Conservatives on the other hand, not surprisingly, see the State as the problem. Governmental efforts to aid the disadvantaged are impersonal and tend to create dependence. The lower overhead costs of voluntary organizations, plus the enthusiasm they bring to relief efforts, can help transform the lives of the persons they come in contact with—especially if they are faith-based. Due to these advantages, conservative politicians have promoted non-governmental solutions for the needy and seek to reduce or even eliminate public aid initiatives.

The bottom line is that while both arguments have merit, the search for promoting the common good in society appears to reside in adequately funding public programs for the disadvantaged while welcoming the efforts of civil society to aid their fellow citizens whenever and however groups can more effectively address a local or regional problem better than a far-off government agency might do. Furthermore, The Great Recession’s pinch on public sector budgets at the very time almost unprecedented numbers of citizens have sought assistance should provide more opportunities for civil society to make valuable contributions for the common good.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the common good is most effectively achieved when social matters are addressed by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority that can competently handle the issue. Put another way, if an individual can tackle an item there is no reason a group would need to. If a small(er) organization can succeed, a larger one isn’t necessary, and so on. Bringing these decisions to the lowest effective level tends to promote solutions by those who have the most local experience and knowledge, as opposed to an organizational level with less understanding and familiarity.

Harvard University Social scientist Robert D. Putnam has written eloquently in works like Bowling Alone, Making Democracy Work, and American Grace that the greatest concern in American society since the 1960s is the collapse of “social capital.” Americans steadily reduced their involvement in civic life, joined fewer organizations and associations, and took part in less community projects. Poor social capital can lead communities to less trust, more isolation, cynicism, less participation in the political process, and less likelihood to come together to solve local problems or see beyond partisan divides.

Promoting civility, sustainable communities, and a democratic spirit in society is something only a combination of the work community foundations, charities, cooperatives, churches, non-governmental organizations, and voluntary associations can do with local participation. George Washington said “government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” If Washington is correct that government can be a blunt force in some of the ways it operates, civil groups can succeed where government might not, because the power of small(er) groups lies in that they are more likely to have trust and shared values within their membership and locale. Civil society groups are more likely to understand the challenges faced by those they seek to serve and are usually more likely to be trusted by those being served. Non-governmental organizations can also focus on specific issues whereas public agencies might be responsible for a wide range of services.

Recent history suggests that weak social capital can result in an unhealthy society. If folks from various walks of life lack trust in their communities and aren’t working through local organizations to combat local problems, then it’s small wonder why we have the bitter partisanship on the national level where common solutions are rare and finger-pointing is all too common. Russia has become a more authoritarian and less free nation precisely at the time that Vladimir Putin’s government has begun a crackdown on civil society organizations and the social capital they raise. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report Laws of Attrition [1] that details the invasive investigations and official harassment of groups that promote civil society and good government in Russia.

What about political efforts to more fully integrate Civil Society into partnership with the government? George W. Bush was elected President in 2000 promoting himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Bush himself opined, “It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results.” [2] He ushered in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (changed to Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration) to much ballyhoo and derision of liberal critics who saw an unconstitutional turnover of government aid programs to conservative Christian organizations. The effort turned out to be mostly negative given that some faith-based groups balked at what it would mean for their missions to accept government monies, and later Bush tax cuts were seen to be hypocritical for someone promoting oneself as “compassionate.”

More recently the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party promoted the “Big Society” as part of its winning 2010 general election manifesto. The Big Society has a number of impressive goals for the advancement of civil society efforts including: devolving more power away from the central government to local levels; encouraging more volunteerism nationwide; supporting the network of cooperatives, mutual assistance organizations, and other non-governmental groups, and offering more transparency and access to the public records of central government operations. In short, The Big Society really means to undertake a transformation of Great Britain. Progress has been slow and halting.

A multitude of critics similar in refrain to their American cousins suggest the Conservatives’ real goal is the elimination and replacement of public services with a hodgepodge of undependable voluntary efforts. Time will tell whether the British experiment is successful.
On the other end of the spectrum, China’s Communist Party began an effort at its 2004 National Party Congress to promote in different regions a “small government, big society” culture in which regional organizations assist or even replace direct government aid. China’s status as a one-party state and its endemic corruption, however, makes its initiative appear to be an uphill battle. There has been significant growth in non-governmental organizations in China, but it remains to be seen whether the Party will reward only those groups that hew closely to their directives or co-opt activities by means of direct political oversight.

It is impractical and improper to expect the State to provide all services to citizens in need, or for it to forfeit its role in maintaining the social contract by turning over all assistance to voluntary organizations. The best way forward for cooperation and partnerships between government and society is more communication on local and regional levels where levels of trust and understanding are greater. Federal-level aid efforts should continue for those programs which subsidiarity suggests are large enough to require a broad national organization. In the United States that would mean things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Emergency Management, and some sort of national health plan (not necessarily the Affordable Care Act in its current form). Other types of assistance, on the other hand, are better provided by states or municipalities in combination with civil society. Growing a culture of grass-roots civic participation, responsibility for our individual communities, and increased trust will offer the best means forward to a healthy society and promotion of the common good.


Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk is a National Committee member of the American Solidarity Party


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