The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz
Website: Liberty Book Shop
Why do you do a man a bigger favor by teaching him how to fish than by giving him a fish to eat? Because the latter plan leaves him hungry tomorrow; the former gives him a chance at self-sufficiency.

There are exceptions, but on balance, private charities do a better long-term job of helping the down-and-out than do government welfare programs.

There’s a reason. Government programs strive mightily not to discriminate. Private charities are much more discriminating. And -- in this meaning of the word -- that discrimination helps.

We’re not referring here to discrimination by race or religion. That would be anathema to most charitable groups.

But there is a perverse incentive in any government program to keep the program -- and its jobs -- alive. That requires a steady or growing “client base.” There’s an emphasis on paperwork and standardized procedures. Everyone who fills out the forms gets a check. Promises to change self-destructive behaviors aren’t even extracted, let alone enforced.

Private charities vary, but most take a longer view. Does it really help a beggar to feed him while making no effort to help him avoid the self-destructive behaviors that brought him to this condition? Instead, varying efforts are made to reach the beneficiary with a message of hope and rehabilitation. Homeless men are helped to find food and shelter, but often with a provision that the aid continues only so long as they make bona fide efforts to give up alcohol and drugs, to clean up and seek work.

The problem arises when government funds are mixed into such private endeavors.

Comes now the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, objecting to a requirement that those seeking help from the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada submit to a breath test for alcohol before being admitted to the agency’s winter shelter off Las Vegas Boulevard and Foremaster Lane.

“This program seems to be just another senseless assault on the dignity of poor people and also raises serious constitutional questions and concerns,” warns ACLU executive director Gary Peck -- though of course no one is proposing to breath-test “poor people” at random.

“There can be no credible argument that this is being done for safety,” Mr. Peck continues. “It’s perfectly socially acceptable in our country to have one drink. ... So if someone goes to church and has a glass of sacramental wine, then he can’t go to a homeless shelter,” Mr. Peck fumes. “This is completely nonsensical and irrational.”

Leaving aside the obvious questions of just how large a goblet of wine Mr. Peck believes the average celebrant guzzles -- as well as how many of these unfortunates habitually beg dollar bills so they can leave them in the collection plate next time they’re in church -- it certainly is legal to have a drink. It’s also perfectly legal for a private property owner to turn away any would-be guest with alcohol on his breath. This makes particularly good sense if the object of the charitable endeavor in question is to help alcoholics (and others) change their lives.

It does not appear Catholic Charities is leaving the imbibers to their fate; those who can't sober up in an hour are referred -- even driven -- to places such as the Salvation Army shelter, which do not enforce as strict a standard. (Though even the Salvation Army will turn away supplicants who are obviously inebriated. “Safety and security are always a primary concern,” explains national Salvation Army spokesgal Melissa Temme, echoing the Catholic Charities’ concern. “If someone is exhibiting drunk behavior, they are not allowed.”)

Because Catholic Charities is operating this shelter under a $352,000 Clark County (tax-funded) contract, it is indeed likely the discriminatory nature of this policy would not stand a legal test. And that’s too bad, since it harms “tough love” efforts to help these men straighten out their lives, as well as increasing the chance of drunken brawls inside this shelter.

But let’s not lose track of where the problem originated -- not in the wise policy of a private charity requiring sobriety as a first step toward long-term rehabilitation, but in the unwise acceptance and mingling of taxpayer funds, which carry with them the same problems that make government welfare programs less effective than private charity, in the first place.